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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Republicans begin remaking Senate

OLYMPIA – The axiom that elections have consequences is much in evidence in the capital these days as the Senate’s new Republican majority rearranges the deck chairs.

Although they have kept the title “Majority Coalition Caucus” in an apparent nod to Sen. Tim Sheldon, the one Democrat in their midst, gone is any suggestion of power-sharing with the remainder of the minority Democrats. All committee chairmen or chairwomen are Republicans, as one would expect when a party has enough seats to decide most issues by itself.

For the last two years, Democrat Tracie Eide served as co-chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee with Republican Curtis King, and Democrat Steve Hobbs either led the Senate Financial Institutions Committee or shared power with Republican Jan Angel. Those committees now are firmly in Republican hands, and the best any Democrat will be able to claim is “ranking minority member,” which is a position without a gavel.

When top posts are awarded, it is somewhere written that the leader must issue a news release explaining how pleased and honored he or she is to be leading a committee so vital in the grand scheme of protecting the interests of the good people back home. This is necessary even if that person served a top spot on another committee last session, and explained to the good people how important that previous committee was in the grand scheme of protecting their interests.

Such moves are often necessary to rise in the food chain. So Spokane Sen. Mike Baumgartner left the Ways and Means Committee, where he had been vice chairman, to become chairman of the Commerce and Labor Committee. This caused some grumbling from the constituency in the second half of the committee’s title, which pointed out that Baumgartner sponsored the legislation labor hated most last session, a “right-to-work” bill that essentially would have made union membership voluntary.

But elections have consequences. If more unions and other Democratic allies had persuaded more voters to mail in their ballots in a few close Senate races, Democrats would have passed out chairmanships last week.

The right-to-work bill never got a hearing last session, even though previous committee chairwoman Janea Holmquist Newbry wasn’t one to hum verses of “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” on her way to meetings. Chairmen control committee agendas, so if Baumgartner wants to reintroduce the bill it’s almost guaranteed a hearing, could get a shot at a floor vote and conceivably even pass a Republican Senate. Getting a House hearing, where the panel of jurisdiction would be the – ahem – Labor Committee, might be more difficult.

House Democrats actually renamed that committee last week, dropping “and workforce development” from the old title, a pretty clear signal of where they stand.

Another thing that happens as a new Legislature prepares to meet is a rearranging of the actual decks that hold the chairs. Some new committees are formed, others split, still others dissolved and their purviews parceled to other panels, with a suggestion that this is soooo much better than the way we used to do it.

Senate Republican/Majority Coalition forces touted their newest panel, the Accountability and Reform Committee, which leader Mark Schoesler said would help “to restore people’s trust and to make sure government works for the people who pay the bills and not just special interests.”

House Democrats, Schoesler noted, had dissolved that chamber’s Government Accountability and Reform Committee. “I’m proud that we have made government accountability a top priority,” he added.

A cynic might question whether the best way to restore “the people’s” trust in government is to form a new committee, considering committee meetings are where the handmaidens of special interests do much of their work.

It also seems fair to point out that the House committee in question, whatever its official name, was colloquially known as the “sin committee” because it spent so much time on topics that appeal to our baser natures – gambling, liquor and, more recently, pot. Those concerns didn’t disappear; House Democrats seemed to decide they have grown like kudzu and had to be bifurcated.

They created two panels to handle the old Accountability Committee’s topics: a Commerce and Gaming committee for booze, tobacco, gambling and pot; and a General Government and IT Committee to handle state government audits and review fiscal bills on certain areas of state government.

Yes, this is so much better. Clearly, the Legislature will finish its work in record time.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at blogs/spincontrol.
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