OLYMPIA – There is an ironclad rule in legislative politics: When you have the votes to pass something, you take them; when you don’t have the votes, you talk.
Add to that, if you decide to stop talking, you might just not vote.
So it was one long day in the House of Representatives last week when Democrats had the votes to pass a new law governing the people who provide in home care to the disabled, known as individual providers, and the Republicans wanted very badly for that law not to pass. The Senate went through a similar battle about two weeks ago on the bill.
The argument is steeped in the fight between views for and against labor unions, because one of the provisions would be to make IPs, as the workers are known, subject to membership in the Service Employees International Union. It is one of the big guns among Washington labor and is never shy about locking and loading.
House debate rules do not allow a member to cast aspersions on the motives of another member or institution, which was very difficult for Republicans who generally have a hard time even uttering the letters SEIU or their allies without making the live version of an angry-face Emoji. They thought they had a workaround, however, by asking permission to read from emails they’d received from concerned constituents.
These emails generally went something like this:. “My constituent (fill in a first name) wrote to say she/he takes care of (fill in a relative) who struggles with (fill in a debilitating condition) and he/she is concerned about how much this bill would cost them in terms of dues to the SEIU.” It’s true that under the bill, an IP would be employed by a private entity rather than through a state agency, and have the union as its bargaining unit. They would pay dues as members, or not join but pay fees that cover some services the union provides.
The cost of those dues would be described in some personal terms, like a set of tires for the pickup, and the lawmaker would then venture into some discussion of the need for transparency into alleged nefarious activity of the SEIU.
Bang, would go the gavel from Speaker Pro Tem John Lovick. Talk about policy, not motives, he warned.
The lawmaker would then venture into a reference about the need for transparency in the bill’s supporters being bought and paid for by the SEIU –
BANG, would go the gavel again, and the lawmaker would have to sit down.
This continued for more than an hour when Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, rose to object to the fact that his members were not being allowed to adequately debate the issue, because the alleged nefarious activities of the SEIU and its allies were at the issue’s core. They were being censored from talking about the real issues.
In the middle of his discourse, the gavel went bang, but not, as it turned out, for Kristiansen. One of the Democrats was caught taking a photo on the House floor, which is a no-no under the rules. But Republicans decided they’d had enough, called an immediate caucus and walked off the floor. When they came back, they sat quietly in their seats. Because Democrats had nothing more to say about how this would maintain Washington’s good system of home health care, Lovick called for the vote.
The 50 Democrats pushed their yes buttons. The 48 Republicans didn’t move. While 50 votes is the majority needed to pass a bill, no one seemed sure what to do about the 48 nonvotes. The House tally board has four categories for votes: yes, no, absent, excused. It doesn’t have a “present but not voting”.
For a half hour, folks watching at home on TVW saw a screen that listed the vote count as 50 to 0. At one point, Democratic leaders made a pilgrimage to the Republican side and talked with GOP leaders off the floor, then returned. At the end of 30 minutes, Lovick repeated the standard call for votes: “Has every member voted? Does any member wish to change his or her vote?” Nothing changed.
He banged the gavel and announced the bill had passed.
Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said later he couldn’t remember another time that had happened.
On the Legislature’s website, the official House vote for Senate Bill 6199 is 50 yes, 48 absent. That might make some people assume a virus had swept through the Legislature on March 1. If so, it was a virus of indignant futility.
Legislators are supposed to speak extemporaneously during debate, and must receive permission to read from printed material. Lawmakers on the opposing side often watch closely, as freshman Rep. Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia, discovered recently after receiving permission to read statistics from a piece of paper, then failing to put the paper down as she continued her speech. It drew a quick objection she was reading her speech, and she had to apologize for not putting the paper down.
Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, a veteran lawmaker, had a different problem after receiving permission to read a portion of current law. Silence followed. “Go ahead,” he was told from the rostrum.
“I would, but my computer just went down,” Hunt said.