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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: Budget negotiators follow silly policy

OLYMPIA – Among the bromides passed off as great wisdom during this special session of the Legislature is that budget negotiators should not – nay, absolutely must not, and therefore do not – negotiate a budget in the media.

This has been mentioned at various times by all players, from the governor to the leadership of the Senate and House to the negotiators themselves as though the admonition were cast in stone, or at least referenced through an asterisk on the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai and clear for anyone who read the next few verses in Deuteronomy.

Let’s get the office Bible down and check. Ah yes, here it is … Shalt not covet thy neighbor’s whatever. Shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. Shalt not negotiate budgets in the media.

The media, it should surprise no one, thinks this is a silly commandment, particularly when it is flouted by the very people who quote it like Sadducees in the Temple. So reporters were intrigued when leaders of the Senate Majority Caucus called a news conference late last week to proclaim budget negotiations had made great progress, and they had made a comprehensive counteroffer to the House budget up for a vote in the other chamber.

So, what was the counteroffer? Couldn’t say, because they weren’t negotiating in the media.

Are they giving up on certain things they’d previously insisted upon, like reform of the state’s workers’ compensation system? They’re negotiating in good faith and not in the press.

Backing off on opposition to any closing of tax exemptions? They’re optimistic about getting a solution with the House and the governor … which is another way of saying “not negotiating in the media.”

This special session has been special mainly for its lack of activity the public could see for the first 23 days of its 30-day limit. But calling a news conference on Day 25 to not say anything was elevating it to the whole new level of “special” – sort of the way Dana Carvey’s Church Lady uses the term.

It was as if Thomas Jefferson and John Adams called a news conference on the steps of the Pennsylvania State House on July 1, 1776, to say the colonies had a “comprehensive offer” for King George. Colonists might want to make sure the rope to the bell in the tower is strong enough to take some good pulls, but other than that, “We don’t negotiate in the press.”

One problem with negotiating out of the public eye is that legislators can be working on bad facts with no one around to correct them. This was apparently happening with members of the Senate majority, who, while they weren’t negotiating in the media, did criticize the House budget for relying on eliminating more than $250 million in tax exemptions to boost education spending. It wasn’t just that they were against higher taxes, but that those tax changes could be overturned by voters, so they weren’t a reliable way to pay for education.

“This isn’t the old Soviet Union, where you can guarantee an election,” said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, the Senate Majority Coalition leader.

But the House tax plan didn’t require a referendum. In fact, it had an “emergency clause” that got rid of some tax exemptions on July 1, making it difficult for voters to gather the signatures needed to put it on the ballot. But the majority had trouble reconciling this conflict for reporters because, well, you can probably guess.

The funny thing about this bromide is that last week proved it to be bad policy. After 23 days of meeting secretly, and apparently futilely, to hash out a budget compromise, House Democrats essentially threw up their hands and publicly released a budget bill and accompanying tax changes. They began by insisting they weren’t negotiating in the media and were simply moving a bill in the limited time they had left. But more than one Republican harrumphed about not negotiating in good faith, which is to say they thought Democrats were negotiating in the media.

An hour after their budget “rollout” the House Appropriations Committee held a hearing and went late into the night before passing it to the full House, which passed the budget the next evening. It was the first visible movement on the budget – the main cause of the special session – in more than a month.

One can argue there was hardly enough time to check the House Democrats’ math, let alone see how thousands of programs and policies fared, in such a wham-bam strategy. But after 23 days of inactivity, a little wham-bam was a welcome change – even if it doesn’t result in the accompanying thank-you.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at spincontrol, where you can find video of the “not negotiating in the media” news conference.