OLYMPIA – When legislators are sure they have a great idea, they might look for ways to make it happen, regardless of the rules they have to bend. When they are sure something is a bad idea, they are apt to be much more worried about process.
That’s sort of the Cliffs Notes version of how the final days of the Legislature’s 2018 session played out.
Some people really didn’t want Initiative 940, which defines how to handle law enforcement cases involving deadly force, to go on the November ballot. They were concerned about the issue, but they didn’t like some provisions in the proposed ballot measure.
This is a problem for an initiative to the Legislature, because the state constitution gives lawmakers three choices: Pass it, and it becomes law; ignore it, and it goes on the November ballot; come up with a better idea, and that becomes a competing initiative on the same ballot with the original.
None of those seemed like a good idea to legislators, the law enforcement community and the initiative’s main sponsors.
They wrote up a series of changes to the initiative that all sides could live with. But they didn’t turn it into a separate initiative. They wrote it as a bill to change the law that the initiative would become, if they passed it. They wrote the workaround to take effect one day after the changes would take effect.
Some legislators, however, principally those with an R after their names, began to wonder if Gov. Jay Inslee would veto the workaround. They seemed more than a bit steamed by Inslee’s veto of the special exemptions to the state’s public records law they overwhelmingly approved for themselves. It’s possible they forgot that the vast majority of those who voted for the exemptions asked him to veto the exemptions after the spit hit the fan and they started to get drenched.
With time running out, the House passed the workaround 73-25 on Day 59 of the 60-day session and sent it to the Senate, where it got a quickie committee hearing and quick shovel pass to the full body. The next day, the Senate began debate on what was supposed to be a done deal, because the alternative was the initiative that most legislators didn’t like going on the ballot by itself. And voters might just say yes to that.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, made an impassioned defense of the initiative process, noting the three ways the constitution tells the Legislature to deal with initiatives the voters send it. If lawmakers want a fourth method, they need to amend the constitution, he said.
Even if everyone on both sides of the deadly force issue thinks this is a great idea, amending an initiative this way sets a bad precedent that could allow future Legislatures to gut any ballot measure they get, he said. His amendment to turn the contents of the bill into a competing initiative failed.
Before the vote on the workaround itself, Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, asked if it needed a two-thirds majority to pass, the amount needed to change an initiative in the first two years after it passes. No, argued Law and Justice Committee Chairman Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle. The constitution requires a two-thirds majority only for initiatives “voted on by the electors.”
Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib huddled with parliamentary attorneys, then ruled Pedersen was right because there’s no mention of any special threshold for an initiative approved by the Legislature, so it should default to the standard simple majority.
In the end, the workaround bill passed 25-24 – majority Democrats voting yes, minority Republicans voting no – and was hand-delivered to Inslee at a sprint. He signed.
Both chambers still had to pass I-940 in the closing hours, because without legislative approval, the initiative was going on the ballot, the workaround would be void, and the language that people didn’t like wouldn’t be replaced by the negotiated language that both sides could live with.
Some Republicans balked, insisting they were standing up for law enforcement by opposing the initiative. But it passed the House and Senate among the final gasps of legislative energy.
So I-940 will take effect June 7, be amended June 8 and possibly improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve while setting new standards for reviewing officer-involved shootings.
That is, unless someone challenges it in court or files a referendum to undo what the Legislature did. Odds are there’s a stickler for process out there already exploring those options.