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Spin Control: Scoring political points without winning votes on the budget debate

UPDATED: Sun., April 2, 2017

Democratic Rep. Timm Ormsby speaks on the House floor in support of a $44.9 billion two-year state budget proposal, on Friday, March 31, 2017, in Olympia, Wash. House Democrats now must negotiate a final plan with Senate Republicans, who previously passed their own proposal. (Rachel La Corte / AP)
Democratic Rep. Timm Ormsby speaks on the House floor in support of a $44.9 billion two-year state budget proposal, on Friday, March 31, 2017, in Olympia, Wash. House Democrats now must negotiate a final plan with Senate Republicans, who previously passed their own proposal. (Rachel La Corte / AP)

It’s a rare budget debate that passes without a lawmaker reminding colleagues a budget “is a statement of values” – or something close.

If values can be measured by making them valuable in dollars and cents, that’s demonstrably true. But what budget debates become, frequently, are political opportunities for counting coup.

For those unfamiliar with the term, it stems from the Plains Indian tradition of going up to your enemy and touching him with your coup stick. One did not kill or even injure the enemy to count coup. It was enough to come as close as possible to show your bravery, tap with the stick and get away. Your deed could be celebrated around the fires for years to come.

There seemed to be a significant amount of coup counting last week as House Democrats brought their 2017-19 operating budget up for debate. It is a principle of Legislating 101 that no majority party brings up a budget unless it has the votes to pass it, so the scheduling meant it was going to pass, however horrible the Republicans might be convinced it was.

As is typical for the party in the minority, that didn’t keep Republicans from filing a slew of amendments, which is another principle of Legislating 101. When combined with a slightly smaller boatload of changes various Democrats wanted, the lineup of amendments spanned almost the width of the House rostrum as though a Las Vegas dealer had spread them like a giant deck of cards.

House Speaker Pro Tem Tina Orwall might’ve been guilty of the biggest understatement of the week as she formally called the legislation to the floor with the bill number and the standard explanation “… there are amendments.” There were, in fact, 63, requiring debate to be spread over two days.

Some were relatively minor adjustments in spending, like $2 million a year to help county fairs. While that’s a nice chunk of change to most readers, in a $44.9 billion budget, $4 million isn’t even a rounding error. Yet lawmakers seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time praising the values of county fairs. During debate we learned many of them have happy memories of county fairs, that Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, has been in charge of poultry and rabbit competition at her county fair and Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, swore that the best milk shakes in the world are served at the Clark County Dairy Women’s Booth at that fair.

Some Democrats also had fond fair memories, but not enough to cough up $4 mil. Notice to any Democrat running in a rural district next year: Thy name shall be fair killer.

Most of the coup counting was over taxes. Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, asked the House to add a “Truth in Budgeting” section that would require the House to produce a budget solely based on existing revenue projections as well as one based on taxes that are proposed but not yet approved. The governor is required to do that, he said, and the House should, too.

“To quote Jerry Maguire, ‘Show me the money,’ ” Manweller said.

House Appropriations Chairman Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said Democrats will show Republicans the money starting Monday morning when they begin hearings on the tax package. But even though the governor produces such a budget, called Book 1, it is generally ignored, he noted

“Nobody’s talked about the governor’s Book 1 budget because it sucks,” Ormsby opined, drawing chuckles from lawmakers of both parties, but no disagreement.

There were efforts to halt any attempt at a capital gains tax or a graduated real estate excise tax, and to use the Rainy Day fund to keep schools open if the state Supreme Court were to decide the Legislature failed to meet its deadline to improve education. All failed.

Among the most inventive was an amendment by Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, seeking to ding Seattle (by which he meant liberal Democrats) with the failure of a major waste water treatment facility that has dumped sewage into the Puget Sound. Last year the House approved a budget amendment that forbade travel by state employees to Victoria, British Columbia, until that city stopped dumping sewage in the sound, he said. State employees should be similarly barred from travel to Seattle until the West Point treatment center is properly operating, he said.

“All we’re asking for is a little consistency,” said Buys.

This prompted some of his colleagues to wax eloquent about abuses by “jackbooted” inspectors from the Department of Ecology, who allegedly have kept country kids from raising sheep for the fair. Republicans just couldn’t seem to let go of fair stories.

Eventually, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, felt forced to remind Republicans: “In contrast to Victoria, B.C., Seattle is a part of Washington state. Sometimes I think that escapes us here.”

Buys’ amendment also failed, but when House Republicans next gather he may get a notch for his coup stick.

Fractured phrase of the week

Senate Ways and Means Chairman John Braun, R-Centralia, was explaining to reporters why the Senate isn’t inclined to go along with a tuition freeze at state colleges after securing a freeze four years ago and a tuition cut two years ago.

“That train has sailed,” Braun said. He brought the locomotive back to land by adding: “We think we have that on the right track and the next issue to deal with is access.”

Braun beats out Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, who during the debate over the House budget offered this argument against higher taxes: “When taxes are increased, you are literally choking the golden goose that lays your golden eggs.”

Maybe figuratively, maybe metaphorically, but not literally unless Kraft has such a talented bird.

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