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

Will surprise ‘firing’ affect legislative session?

Last Friday’s surprise – and in some ways unprecedented – rejection of a key cabinet member continued to roil the Capitol this week with Gov. Jay Inslee contending his transportation secretary was “dragged through the mud for political purposes” and some Republicans predicting “more heads would roll.”

Others were trying to shrug it off as “part of the process.”

The fallout from the Senate Republicans’ decision to reject, and thus immediately fire, Lynn Peterson isn’t yet clear. One predicted ill effect – a higher rate for some $200 million in transportation bonds – did not materialize Tuesday. Whether it will cast an even darker partisan shadow over a closely divided Legislature and require the fifth overtime session in six years remains to be seen.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen next,” said Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a 40-year veteran of the Legislature who presided over Friday’s confirmation debate. “It has definitely left very hard feelings and a sense of distrust.”

It wasn’t just that the Senate rejected her, but the way Senate Republicans did it, with no advance warning, Owen said.

A governor appoints some 460 people to departments, boards, commissions and committees, which under the state constitution must be approved with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Often that involves a quick hearing in front of a committee that has jurisdiction over the board or agency, and an easy vote in the full Senate which can be shoe-horned between resolutions and noncontroversial bills.

Last Friday, some Republican lawmakers said they were merely exercising their constitutional role by voting against Peterson after a series of high-profile controversies ranging from a stalled tunnel project near downtown Seattle to expensive toll lanes on a suburban interstate.

Peterson was not new to the job. She was among Inslee’s early cabinet appointees when he took office in 2013. Under state law, an appointee can serve without confirmation, and some serve an entire term without ever coming to a vote. Of the 27 agency heads appointed by Inslee, 14 have not been confirmed.

Peterson didn’t have a confirmation hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee until last June, and earned praise from Chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima, at that time.

The last time the Senate rejected a gubernatorial appointment was 1998, when former legislator and congresswoman Jolene Unsoeld was bounced from the Fish and Wildlife Commission. Like Peterson, Unsoeld had served for three years in the post without a confirmation vote. Gov. Mike Lowry, who appointed her, was out of office and replaced by Gary Locke.

But there are some big differences between the Unsoeld and Peterson rejections, said Owen, who was serving in the Senate at the time. Unsoeld had spent many years in elective office and knew she was controversial. She knew the vote was coming and had the option of withdrawing. She chose to fight it out and lost 26-22.

“Usually a person knows that they’re under scrutiny. They can step down or decide they’re going to fight,” Owen said. Neither Peterson, who has no history in elective politics, nor Inslee was given that advance warning.

“Even in the private sector, you have meetings with people, you have evaluations,” Owen said.

In the wake of Peterson’s rejection, Inslee canceled regularly scheduled meetings with Senate Republican leadership, who didn’t raise their caucus’s problems with Peterson in any previous session, said Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith. “It’s difficult to see how continuing these meetings is a productive use of anyone’s time.”

After Peterson’s rejection, Republicans said it should serve as notice to other agency heads: “Serve the people with accountability. Or more heads are going to roll,” Sen. Mike Baumgartner, of Spokane, wrote on Twitter.

“This is a new week,” Senate Majority Caucus Chairwoman Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, said. “Eventually we will all be talking again. I just can’t tell you when.”

As they fought a losing battle to keep Peterson on the job, Democrats warned such an abrupt firing would send a signal to the financial markets the transportation system is in chaos just as the state was preparing to sell about $200 million in bonds. It’s the latest round of financing to pay for major projects backed by gasoline taxes raised last summer.

“A bond rating is larger than one individual,” state Treasurer Jim McIntire said. “That’s not to take anything away from Lynn Peterson, who in my opinion did a terrific job. I think it was unfortunate and ill-advised that the Senate chose to reject her.”

One unanswered question in the wake of Peterson’s ouster is whether the political rifts will carry over into complicated discussions over public education funding, pushing the Legislature into an overtime session for the fifth time in six years. Inslee is up for re-election this fall as is the House and half the Senate. None of them can raise campaign money while the Legislature is in session; their opponents who are not have no such restrictions.