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Tuesday, June 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Budget debates bring out more than dollars and cents

OLYMPIA – Budgets are the place where politicians put their money where their mouths are. Or more accurately, our money where their hearts are.

This was abundantly clear Thursday and Friday as first the House and then the Senate spent hours debating amendments for the 2015-17 supplemental general fund operating budget, which by its title alone probably makes 9 out of 10 readers’ eyes glaze over.

In the Legislature, budgets are hundreds of pages of dollar amounts tied to agencies and programs, and almost always are controlled by the party that controls the chamber. They are written and passed by the majority, often with scant concern for the minority.

This currently generates two very different budget proposals, as Democrats barely control the House of Representatives and Republicans the Senate. Before they are passed, the minority proposes a bunch of amendments, which everyone knows won’t pass, to air out issues dear to their hearts.

Thursday in the House, Republicans proposed a laundry list of amendments covering topics key to their conservative base.

They tried to limit abortions, or the use of state money to pay for them, and collect data on the age and ethnicity of women who have them. Push back against a rule that transgender people can use the restroom or locker room of their choice. Offer tax breaks for firearms and trigger locks. Set aside some money for charter schools. Find out what kind of contracts state agencies have with the federal government, and study ways to get federal land turned over to the state.

One of the more creative ideas would have allowed the governor to spend money from the Rainy Day Account to keep schools open if the state Supreme Court were to “cross the Rubicon,” in the words of Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, and close down schools if the Legislature continues to fall short of what the court says is a constitutional mandate to do more for public education.

This is pretty far down the list in the parade of horribles suggested by people supremely upset with the Supreme Court over its ruling on inadequate public school support. The court would have to conclude that no school at all is better than a constitutionally substandard school. Still, it was an interesting argument, as House Democratic Leader Pat Sullivan, of Covington, pointed out it would do something Republicans would normally be loath to do: cede to the governor the legislative authority on how to spend money.

“Our power is the power of the purse,” countered Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, and giving that power to the governor would be OK in an emergency. “The court has already overstepped its bounds, in the opinion of many of us.”

This and the many other amendments got the support of all Republicans in the chamber, and no Democrats. Which meant they failed.

A day later in the Senate, the parties switched roles, with similar results. Minority Democrats pushed for more money for teacher salaries, for programs to help the homeless, disabled or blind and for disadvantaged school kids. But one of the bigger fights was over an amendment to set aside $90 million as an “insurance policy” for school districts in case the Legislature can’t come up with a solution next year to a complication in the school levy laws that is going to take a chunk out of many districts’ property tax collections.

This is a problem with enough numbers and permutations to give an entire H&R Block office a joint migraine. But it ended with a debate over democracy, after the amendment got 25 votes, which is a majority but not the supermajority needed to pass a budget amendment in the Senate. This led to a string of senators taking a “point of personal privilege,” essentially a chance to stand up and talk about anything on their minds.

For the people watching at home, Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said, it’s important to realize that the majority of the Senate agreed to the amendment, but it didn’t pass because of a rule put in place last year by the Republican-led majority that allows a minority to control things.

Those viewers should also know that a minority of the Senate blocked the requirement that tax increases pass with a two-thirds majority, which a majority of the voters has approved many times, Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, countered.

But that two-thirds majority for tax increases needed a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority, said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle. In other words, it’s a much bigger deal than a rule change in the Senate.

Some legislators insist budgets are “moral documents.” While it’s dangerous to link anything to morals in the Legislature, Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, was definitely correct last week when he said “budgets are interesting things.”

When you get past the numbers, they usually are.

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

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