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Spin Control: Gregoire relents, signs scores of bills

Sun., April 1, 2012

OLYMPIA – In the list of threats a Washington governor can hurl at a recalcitrant Legislature, “I won’t sign your bills” has proved to be among the least menacing.

Gov. Chris Gregoire kept threatening not to sign bills if the Legislature didn’t cough up a general fund budget that left the state in the black at the end of this fiscal biennium. If any legislators quaked in their boots, they did it from afar, where they have spent most of the special session. It did not register here on the political Richter scale.

Here’s why: In some states, a bill that is not signed by a certain deadline is dead. It’s called a “pocket veto,” probably from the days of smoke-filled rooms when a governor (or president) could shove offensive legislation in his vest or coat pocket, mixing it with other papers, news clippings, walking around money, gambling markers, a flask and a few cigars, keeping it out of sight and mind until it expired on its own.

A close look at Gregoire’s standard attire reveals that current gubernatorial garb suffers from the problem of most women’s business couture. It either has no pockets or has them so small that one might carry a smartphone or a small tin of breath mints but not both.

This is OK, because Washington has no pocket veto law. Instead, a bill becomes law without the governor’s signature after a set time. It only dies if the governor vetoes it.

The governor’s threat, then, did not imperil any legislation that she didn’t actively dislike. Instead, it cut into the ceremonial part of legislating, when the sponsors of a bill, the supporters from various sectors of the body politic and their lobbyists stand behind her in the large conference room while the governor signs the front sheet of the official bill form. After posing for a photo – legislative photographers swear Gregoire has never blinked for these shots, not once in almost eight years – she then hands the signing pen, imprinted with her name, to a sponsor or someone instrumental in its passage, and hands out duplicate pens from a small tray nearby to everyone who wants one. (On rare occasions a guest has grabbed a second pen, but that’s considered loutish.)

The supporters of that bill then file out of the conference room, and supporters of the next bill file in.

The chance to grip and grin with a governor in celebration of one’s legislation is coveted by many legislators, regardless of party. There were some grumblings from a few members about “holding bills hostage” but that was silly.

What she was holding hostage were the ceremonies, not the legislation. And the people involved in budget negotiations tended to be people who had already attended their fair share of signings and probably have desk drawers full of official pens. They uttered not a peep.

As Saturday approached, the day when bills would become law, she relented, said sufficient budget progress was being made and began signing bills. She had to add a caveat to that description of sufficient budget progress: It could all come together in 48 hours, or it could all fall apart.

That meant signing about 177 bills over the course of two days, which may be a record, and cause for OSHA to study whether it’s precedent to repetitive strain injury.

Washington state in other news media

The New York Times recently discovered a phenomenon about Washington that most state residents take for granted. We tend to elect women to office.

Last week, “All the News that’s Fit to Print” included a story about the evolving nature of women in politics that focused on Gregoire and Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. That’s because Washington is the only state with women in all three of those statewide positions. That will end next year, the Times noted, because Gregoire’s not seeking re-election and the likely replacements are men.

It also mentioned the state had a woman as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, an earlier female governor, Dixy Lee Ray, and Seattle had a woman for mayor back in the 1920s.

Had it looked just a tad east, the Times might have discovered Eastern Washington residents also have a woman as their U.S. representative, and until the beginning of this year when Spokane’s chief executive left office, many city residents north of the river had a woman as mayor, City Council member and state senator.

The fact that Mary Verner lost to David Condon doesn’t suggest residents are any less likely to elect a woman. Rather, it suggests women may have achieved something close to equality in local politics, where gender wasn’t a major factor in their election or unelection.

Still, it’s a decent article with a great photo. A link to it can be found on the Spin Control blog.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online at spincontrol.

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