Spin Control: Lessons the Legislature teaches us
There are things one learns after 153 days watching the Legislature.
Well, technically not 153 days of watching, because there were big stretches of time in the 105-day regular session, the 30-day first special session and the 18-day second special session that there really was no Legislature to watch. Most of the honorables had gone home, and the few leaders and budget negotiators were squirreled away from the prying eyes of the public. But even when they were gone, there were lessons to be learned. Such as:
It may be good to shake things up, like leadership; but it is not necessarily efficient. When a coalition of Republicans and two Democrats wrested control of the Senate late last year, things obviously were going to be different from the past several years when Democrats controlled both houses and the governor’s office. Those differences were among the main reasons things took so long. It might be helpful to change the rules so that whichever party runs the show in each chamber in an odd-numbered year, which is when the main budget is written, the other party gets control in the short session of even-numbered years. The actual majorities would still control what comes out of committees and passes, but both sides would get regular practice at running things.
Help can come from unexpected places. Negotiations over the $33.6 billion operating budget reportedly improved after House Republicans – who are the Legislature’s enduring minority, sort of like the statehouse version of the Chicago Cubs – got involved. House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen was described by several as an honest broker in the offers that went back and forth, and Rep. Gary Alexander, their longtime budget maven, was good with details.
Predictions about how long the Legislature will need to do its work are always wrong. Back in January, Senate leaders derided any suggestion that they would need more than the regular 105 days to get things done, a position they maintained until about the 101st day even though there was no agreement on a budget, and a budget takes several days to print, reconcile and pass. They were going to do the people’s business and go home on time. When the first special session started, House Democrats were the ones clamoring to hurry up, while the Senate majority said they’d stay as long as it took. In the last two weeks, Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom and Gov. Jay Inslee both made predictions about how soon a budget deal could be completed and the second special session over.
A slavish devotion to consistency is … not a prerequisite to be a legislator. Republicans of both houses are leery of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The state’s two-year operating budget relies on the expansion of Medicaid, via Obamacare, for about $300 million, and a group of Senate Republicans tried Friday afternoon to cut that provision out of the bill, with well-rehearsed talking points in hand. That effort failed, but the 16 GOP senators who voted for the amendment to cut Obamacare out of the budget had voted for a Republican budget just a few weeks earlier that had that money in it. The reason: They couldn’t make the budget balance without it.
A tax hike is always a tax hike. Why isn’t a tax cut always a tax cut? Any reduction or elimination of a tax exemption – some prefer to call them loopholes – was derided as a tax increase even though the benefiting entity has been getting a break on taxes for some period of time. OK, but when temporary taxes come off many service businesses and national beers, is anybody going to celebrate a tax cut? Sen. Andy Billig pointed out that the people who were the loudest defenders of tax preferences never acknowledged that some businesses and beer drinkers were getting a tax cut. (And don’t be surprised if the price of your favorite six-pack doesn’t change.)
The Legislature giveth and Legislature taketh away. Especially where booze is concerned. The same session that opened up more places to get a drink – theaters, grocery stores, farmers markets – cracked down on drunken driving. There were a few comments about the irony of this, but …
Irony is sometimes a byproduct of the legislative process. Everyone likes to make jokes that compare the making of legislation and sausage. On Friday there was an amendment to a list of tax exemptions about … sausage. It involves churches holding events like pancake feeds or sausage festivals to raise money. It didn’t pass, so that’s about all most people need to know about it, but the way the “sausage amendment” got added to the bill at the end of a morning committee meeting, then amended on the Senate floor, then pulled from the bill because folks in the House said “we never agreed to any sausage amendment,” was the epitome of the old adage.
Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears as a blog with daily items at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.