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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Success in the Washington Senate starts with counting to 25

There is a special math in the state Senate, which requires not geometry or calculus, but the ability to count to 25.

Senate Democrats learned that Friday after spending much of the day trying to maneuver a piece legislation to the Senate floor, only to have the effort collapse from a shortage of bodies.

Since we are blaming President Donald Trump for almost everything, it is worth noting that this bit of parliamentary gymnastics was brought on partly by the new administration’s apparent fondness for Republicans who supported him early and often in Washington. It has given a temporary gig to Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale as the transition spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, and flat out hired away Sen. Brian Dansel, of Republic, to be assisting specially at the Department of Agriculture.

This creates a messaging problem for Republicans, because the GOP-led Majority Coalition Caucus is in danger of violating truth in advertising standards, but a math problem for Democrats.

When the session dawned three weeks ago, that coalition held a 25-24 edge over the Democrats. With Dansel gone and Ericksen encamped in Washington, D.C., the numbers for any kind of controversial legislative action are 23-24.

There was a running debate all week whether the Senate was tied or had a majority of one party or the other.

Republican officials in Northeast Washington, Dansel’s old district, are expected to bring that number up one as early as Monday. That, by itself, won’t give them back control because the number for passing anything in the Senate is 25. 

The Senate has a provision that allows the lieutenant governor to vote to break a tie, and that would seem to favor the Democrats because Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib is a Democrat who came from the Senate ranks. But in order for Habib to vote, there must be a 24-24 tie, and should the prospect of that loom, a single Republican need only absent him or herself from the the hallowed chamber, and voila, it is 24-23.

So unless at least one Republican will vote with Democrats on something near and dear to a deep blue heart, or two Democrats will vote with Republicans on a ruby red issue, ain’t nothin’ controversial moving out of the Senate any time soon. The penalty for that is a deeply held secret by both parties, but inside sources say it involves being strung up by one’s thumbs and forced to listen to a debate between the proponents of Lean management and disciples of efficiency guru Malcolm Baldridge

Math lessons required an interminably long day Friday, which was scheduled to be a “pro forma” session. That’s a fancy term for a legislative quickie, where nothing important happens and no more than one person need show up. Most pro forma sessions start and end within about five minutes.

But on Friday, all 24 Democrats showed up on their half of the Senate floor, with a lone Republican, Floor Leader Joe Fain, of Auburn, on the other. Rather than doing mostly nothing, Democrats wanted to push a bill to the floor that would give the state’s school districts a one-year reprieve from an impending reduction in their taxing authority. This “levy cliff” delay had passed the House earlier in the week and Democrats said school districts need it signed, sealed and delivered right away to avoid having to figure out two budgets, one with the current money they’re getting, and one without.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said for the Spokane School District that amounts to a difference of $10.8 million in the budget, which means two significantly different budgets with the smaller one requiring pink slips to teachers.

Fain objected to doing anything but adjourning after a few routine procedures. “There are no votes in a pro forma session.” 

Democrats then offered a motion to change the rules and make it not a pro forma session. That’s not the way the system works, Fain argued, and is messing with tradition was pushing the Senate to the edge of a cliff. (Note: This is a hyperbolic cliff, unlike the levy cliff, which is merely a figurative financial structure.)

Allowing a change like that would mean that some late night, when he was sitting in the chamber to allow routine matters to be formalized he could change rules as a majority of one, Fain said.

“I could make a rule that all the business of the Senate be conducted in sweat pants,” he said. This did not instill any horror on the part of Democrats, who continued to push for a vote.

Habib, facing his first parliamentary challenge, called a recess to study precedent.

Sen. Marko Liias, of Lynnwood, admitted to reporters Democrats were trying to leverage their numbers: “We can’t be in pro forma every day Ericksen’s in D.C.”

For several hours, Habib researched and senators negotiated. By mid afternoon, Habib announced that the kind of motion Democrats wanted would take 25 votes, not just a majority of the senators present. As they were mounting another parliamentary attack, Fain noticed one Democrat was missing, bringing the headcount down to 24. There must be at least 25 to conduct any business, and when senators had to stand up and be counted, Habib ruled there wasn’t a quorum, forcing an adjournment.

Democrats claimed a symbolic victory, contending the daylong parliamentary battle highlighted the importance of addressing the levy cliff, and suggested Republicans released their big school improvement plan because of the threat of their maneuvers. 

That may be true, but the real lesson of the day is that to succeed, Democrats will need to work on their addition skills, because Republicans can rely on subtraction.

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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