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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Too much news interrupting August calm in Washington capital

There was a time when mid August would provide the perfect opportunity for a Capitol reporter to contemplate the deep mysteries of life. 

Like why voters consistently elect people to office they will complain about for the next two to four years? Or why, whenever one sees discarded footware on the side of a road or highway, it’s always just one shoe, sandal or boot; so what happened to the other one?

Legislators were safely ensconced in their home districts. The governor was off jogging or bicycling or kayaking or whatever they were inclined to do. Half the bureaucracy was on vacation and the other half was away from their desks covering for the ones who are gone.

This year, however, August is busier than usual. Every morning brings a 140-character missive from the White House that requires a reaction from some level of government and hardly a week goes by without our Democratic state officials squaring off against some new federal edict or polcy.

It’s also busier because after 193 days of regular and special sessions, the Legislature left town without passing a capital construction budget, and thus could come back to seriously mess with our dog days. 

Gov. Jay Inslee is interspersing his summer schedule with trips to various parts of the state to point out the lack of said budget, describing a six- or seven-figure project that would be underway right now if the plan had passed. Depending on his location, Inslee might mention $20 million for distressed schools in Seattle, $15 million for North Pines Middle School in the Valley or $620,000 for the School for the Blind in Vancouver.

It’s a big budget. He could probably stop along his journeys at any wide spot in the road with a church, a bar and a mini-mart with gas pumps, and point to a project that’s on hold. 

He issues press releases castigating Senate Republicans for their recalcitrance to break their vow that no final vote would be taken on the construction budget until House Democrats passed acceptable legislation on a major change to water-rights laws. 

The details of that fight will make most readers eyes glaze over unless they are trying to build a home on an undeveloped suburban lot and can’t get a permit. In that case, there’s not enough space in this column to impart details. The key point is, the House did not vote on such a bill so it and the budget are inexorably linked in a standoff that shows no signs of being solved soon.

Senate Republicans are not apt to suffer quietly the slings and arrows from Inslee. They fight back with weapons at hand, like last Wednesday’s Commerce, Labor and Sports Committee hearing in Bellevue. 

The location was selected to highlight an ongoing dispute be some parents of some local high school athletes and the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. That took up about half of the hearing, but it was sandwiched between two favorite GOP jabs: That negotiations between state employee unions and the governor’s budget folks should be open to the public; and the state should lower the business tax on all manufacturers to the cozy level that Boeing pays. 

Although a tax bill along those lines was sponsored by Committee Chairman Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, the policy never got a committee hearing. It went straight to the budget committee, where it got about five minutes of discussion – about equal to back and foruth over Baumgartner’s wardrobe and somewhat less on that particular day than complaints about dandelions in the Capitol grounds. Later it was wrapped into a package of tax cuts for the 2017-19 budget. Inslee vetoed that provision. Republicans like to note the tax package passed with a veto-proof majority, but made no move to attempt an override. In a situation like that, support for the full Christmas tree is always stronger than for an individual ornament.

On Wednesday, the committee made up for its lack a hearing by bringing in a panel of manufacturers to ask for their opinion. Spoiler alert: They all favored a tax cut for their businesses, and thought Inslee was unwise to veto it.

As for opening up the contract negotiations for state workers, open government groups and those generally unfriendly to unions thought it was a super idea. Union reps disagreed, with one pointing out that the Legislature does not negotiate its budget in public, either. But then, you probably could have guessed that.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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