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Spin Control: Cutoff threat creates drama in Legislature

Sun., April 21, 2013

OLYMPIA – The Legislature has a variety of deadlines designed to winnow the thousands of bills introduced in any given session to a few hundred that actually require everyone to cast a vote.

These deadlines, known as cutoffs, generally require a bill to prove it has enough support to move to the next step: get out of a committee, win a vote in the chamber where it was introduced, get out of a committee in the other chamber, and so on.

They can also provide a bit of drama, because when it misses the cutoff a bill is often described as dead – not quite accurate because they do sometimes get called forth like Lazarus, although that’s more an exercise in parliamentary legerdemain than divine intervention.

As one of the final cutoffs neared last Wednesday, much of the drama revolved around the Reproductive Parity Act, which had passed the House only to languish in the Senate, in theory with enough support to pass if it could just get to the floor for a vote. The bill would require nearly all insurance plans that offer maternity services to also cover abortion, and as everyone knows, abortion always generates controversy in the Legislature.

Minority Democrats in the Senate tried Tuesday to entice members of the majority coalition to break ranks and join them in a procedural coup. It failed relatively quickly, on a 23-25 count, but prompted abortion-rights supporters to rain down criticism on senators like Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, who usually vote their way but did not do so this time.

Democrats tried Wednesday to make an omnibus insurance bill the last bit of legislation to be argued before the 5 p.m. cutoff, which would allow them to offer an amendment that could graft the parity act onto the larger bill.

Explanations by Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, about why this should be just fine with the ruling coalition brought heated objections from Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, who shouted “Point of order! Point of order!” so insistently that Lt. Gov. Brad Owen chided him: “I heard you the first time.”

Schoesler accused Keiser of impugning other members’ motives – something not allowed under the genteel rules of the Senate. Owen said he didn’t hear any impugning of motives, and the motion was allowed.

The ensuing vote was described by Democrats as a clear vote on abortion rights, in an attempt to pick up some yes votes from Tom, Litzow or other members of the ruling coalition who describe themselves as pro-choice, regardless of their views on lower taxes and smaller budgets. Republican leaders like Schoesler described it as purely a procedural vote.

Translation: For a majority caucus to remain a majority, its members must stick together on procedure. The coalition held; Democrats again failed 23-25. But it generated another round of criticism from abortion-rights groups that they do not consider it a vote on mere procedure.

Whether Senate Democrats can find another opportunity to bring up the parity act for another vote before the session ends remains to be seen. But clearly there’s another deadline and another vote they’re contemplating a bit further off: 2014, when Tom faces re-election.

What they did do before the cutoff

So the big question as each cutoff approaches is what will be the last bill to slip through under the wire. This is sometimes known as the 4:59 bill, because cutoff was set years ago at 5 p.m., allegedly so legislators of yore were not late for happy hour. But once they start debate on the 4:59 bill, they can go until everyone has had their say or a majority gets thirsty – whichever comes first.

This time around the 4:59 bills in the House and Senate weren’t controversial, but they had strong Spokane roots.

In the House, they voted on Senate Bill 5256, generally known as the Spokane Autopsies and Post-Mortems bill, because it allows medical examiners to talk about the results of autopsies in cases involving law enforcement or jails.

In many counties, medical examiners aren’t reticent, but they are in Spokane. After cases involving local police or deputies, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich pushed for the bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. After being amended to exempt any current cases, it passed 96-0.

The Senate passed House Bill 1045, more generally known as the Safe Streets bill because it allows cities to require drivers to go slower on side streets and in residential areas without doing costly engineering studies. Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, had sponsored a similar bill in the Senate and managed to get the House version slipped in under the wire. It passed 45-2.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items at

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