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Spin Control: A Senate bill left behind, surprisingly

OLYMPIA – A vote in the Senate last week brought a result about as rare as a sunny day in the state capital, and much harder to explain.

A bill to require statewide student tests as part of teacher evaluations – a requirement designed to keep the state kosher with federal No Child Left Behind rules and the money that comes with them – went down in defeat on a floor vote of 19 yes and 28 no.

Rare because hardly anything that comes to a vote in the coalition-led Senate fails, let alone so decisively. It’s almost an article of faith that if coalition leaders bring a bill to the floor, they have the votes to pass it on their own, regardless of what Democrats do. But not this time.

Rare because some of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans voted with a nearly unified bloc of Democrats that included the most liberal. Democrats voting no took swipes at federal heavy-handedness of the Obama administration, normally the province of the GOP, while Republicans voting yes urged colleagues to keep the federal funds coming.

Rare because the language Democrats voted down was essentially their own, amended onto a GOP bill of the same topic, something like a high school student cutting and pasting the bulk of something from a website onto his term paper at 3 a.m. the morning it is due.

Sure, it left out the first couple of paragraphs that waxed on about the relationship of the state and the U.S. Department of Education. But in terms of what the superintendent of public instruction, principals and teachers “shall” do – the guts of any legislation – the two were nearly identical.

The next day, Senate Republican leaders described themselves as amazed that at least six minority Democrats wouldn’t take yes for an answer on their own idea and join GOP ranks to vote for the bill. Asked about the seven members of their coalition who also voted no, Education Committee Chairman Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, defended them as folks who had always been clear they’d be against the bill because of opposition from school officials back home.

“Everybody’s got to be voting their district,” Litzow said.

Which was remarkably similar to Democrats’ explanation of why they voted against language they’d previously been for. Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, said since introducing the bill with the language appropriated by Republicans, she’d heard from people around the state that it wasn’t a good thing. “Local districts should be in charge of determining … what works best for their students,” she said.

The real problem seemed to be that Republicans never had a good vote count, primarily because Democrats never gave them one. But the clock was ticking toward cutoff, a legislative ritual akin to a game of chicken in which everyone waits to see what will be debated just before the 5 p.m. deadline to pass great ideas over to the other chamber. Republicans opted to go for it. And lost.

Democrats opted to bet that a reprieve from the federal government could be won by Gov. Jay Inslee and their friends in the congressional delegation. Too soon to tell if they’ll lose, which would mean state schools could be out as much as $40 million.

In the time remaining …

Discussion of the teacher evaluation bill did not quite use up all the time before the 5 p.m. cutoff, so Senate Republicans pulled one last bill out of the legislative quiver, a very Spokane-specific one. Senate Bill 6028 would allow the city of Spokane to sell the electricity from its West Plains trash burner as renewable energy because, well, what’s more renewable than garbage?

“It’s necessary to keep their city government functional,” Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said in introducing the bill. Yeah, like a piece of legislation could accomplish that.

It’s not a new idea, opponents said, adding that the incinerator isn’t a new source of power. In fact, it’s 15 years older than the renewable energy law passed by voters in 2006.

The bill has one new environmental boost by requiring strict controls on PCBs, said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane.

It passed 26-21, with an unusual mix of Democrats and Republicans on both sides.

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