March 11, 2012 in City

Spin Control: GOP budget maneuver brings Bizarro World to life

By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – One of the hallmarks of the closing days of a legislative session is that people say and do bizarre things.

Make that more bizarre than normal. The marbled halls and floors of the Capitol don’t protect against the weird; they just dress it up a bit.

But after the Legislature tied itself into a Gordian knot over the budget with a week to go, partisans on both sides seemed to go further into the deep than normal. Not that I’m complaining.

As most people with any interest in state politics know, Senate Republicans pulled off a parliamentary coup of historic proportions over the state’s operating budget. Some think it was roughly on par with the Spartans’ feat in holding off the Persians at Thermopylae about 2,500 years ago, though it’s unclear yet if they will fare better in the end than King Leonidas and company.

For those not keeping track, the short version is that all 22 Senate Republicans and three Democrats hijacked the budgeting process and passed a spending plan they liked so the remaining 24 Democrats couldn’t pass their budget. Parliamentary proceduralists were either aghast or amazed. Republicans walked around with smiles on their faces for several days, and the 24 Democrats looked a bit dazed and confused for a bit. (The three disaffected Democrats probably sent their most expendable staffer out to start their cars each night before driving home.)

Outsiders had the most-bizarre reactions. The Evergreen Freedom Foundation, which sometimes serves as the GOP’s philosophical beacon, and the state Republican Party demanded that the House pass the Senate budget, which they insisted on calling the “bipartisan budget,” and not waste taxpayers’ time and money by going into a special session.

The fact that the author of that budget, Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, openly admitted the budget had flaws and was merely a tool for opening negotiations with one side anchored to a more conservative stake seemed not to matter to them in the least. Ditto for the fact that Republicans said they knew they were headed for a special session before pulling the budget coup.

On the other side of the political spectrum, members of the progressive Community Action Network decided to stage a demonstration in a legislative office to protest the budget. Who’s office? Zarelli’s. To what purpose? To ask him to pull his support for what they preferred to call the Republican budget, they said.

The fact that Zarelli was across the street at the Capitol because the Senate was in session made such a conversation unlikely. The fact that he wrote the budget made the outcome they sought improbable. If they wanted to leverage someone, why not sit down in an office belonging to one of the three renegade Democrats, one member was asked. They chose the person they were most angry with, was the answer. Besides, they’d been in communication with the three Democrats throughout the process.

Fat lot of good that did them, obviously.

As five people sat on the office carpet, 60 or more crowded the hallway to chant in support. Among the chants was: “Schools are closing. It’s not fair. Time for banks to pay their share.” This was a reference to a tax exemption the group wants closed. It’s one that even Republicans agree should be ended.

When one of the organizers was asked what schools were closing – the budget doesn’t call for any such thing – she replied that programs would be cut, teachers laid off and class sizes increased.

That’s not exactly the same thing as “schools are closing.” But reality probably doesn’t fit well in a chant.

By Thursday night, the Legislature was stepping in and out of Bizarro World. House Republicans, who regularly insist that the state balance its budget just like the folks at home have to balance theirs, were excoriating the Democrats’ idea to delay a payment to schools by one day, shifting it into the next biennium.

It borders on the criminal for a business, said one Republican. Just think what would happen if you called the bank and said your house payment was going to be a day late, said another.

The fact that it’s an accounting sleight of hand is beyond a doubt. The suggestion that a cash-strapped homeowner wouldn’t do it, if possible, is ridiculous.

In the House wings a few minutes later, Rep. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, shook his head and smiled. It would be criminal if business didn’t disclose it, he said, but not if you tell everyone this is how you’re accounting for the money.

And if you called the bank in these days of defaults and foreclosures to say your mortgage payment’s going to be a day late, Billig said, “they’d probably say something like, ‘Thanks for letting us know.’ ”

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at www.spokesman.com/ spincontrol.


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