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Spin Control: With no legislating taking place, bill signings often the only game in town

OLYMPIA – During a bill signing Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee coaxes a young spectator into howling like a wolf in honor of her school, Hazel Wolf Elementary in Seattle. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – During a bill signing Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee coaxes a young spectator into howling like a wolf in honor of her school, Hazel Wolf Elementary in Seattle. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

Although the Legislature is technically in “special session,” what little legislating that may be going on happens behind closed doors. There’s nothing special to see.

You might think that means reporters are free to adopt the work habits of the residents of the merry old land of Oz, sleeping till noon, arriving for work at 1, taking an hour for lunch and calling it quits at 2. But no, there are newspaper pages to fill, expense reports to justify and editors to mollify, so we spent much of the last week witnessing the tail end of the legislative process: the turning of a bill into a law with the stroke of a pen.

Bill signings are often the closest thing a governor has to a regular bully pulpit in Washington.

So it wasn’t surprising that the day after the American Health Care Act passed the House, Gov. Jay Inslee used the morning’s bill signings to express his feelings about the proposed new law.

It wasn’t completely out of the blue. Among the dozens of bills signed were some designed to improve an aspect of health care in Washington. The Democratic governor, who is a big fan of Obamacare and thus not a fan of what some call Trumpcare, managed to slip in a series of jabs and jibes at the new federal legislation.

“I’m hopeful that the U.S. Congress doesn’t do violence to our health care institutions,” he said while signing a bill to help rural hospitals.

“I hope that Congress doesn’t make our worst dreams come true,” he said while affixing his signature to another on children’s mental health.

Bill signings are a bit of political theater, if one were inclined to go to the theater to see the same scene acted out multiple times with a different cast, and slightly different dialog that always ends in “Let’s smile for the camera.”

Sponsors of the legislation being signed, along with members of the public and lobbyists who lend their support, file into the governor’s conference room and stand around the seated governor while he or she scribbles a signature. Then everyone looks down the long conference table where the photographer grabs a shot that can be accessed later online.

Cute kids sometimes provide a bit of diversion. On Friday, Inslee coaxed a red-haired moppet into howling like a wolf after discovering she attended Hazel Wolf Elementary, a Seattle school named for a famous environmental activist who had the habit of mimicking a wolf at meetings. The kid obliged and did her school’s namesake proud.

The signing pen is handed to the prime sponsor or someone else instrumental in its passage, and hands are shaken all around in a show of bipartisan bonhomie.


The governor is usually the only one who gets to say anything that’s going to be picked up on the TVW microphones, and Republican legislators can only grin and bear it when he takes shots at the lack of a budget agreement, or, as he’s likely to do for the coming weeks, the Obamacare v. Trumpcare fight.

Inslee has sent letters to Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers urging her to vote against changes to Obamacare, which seems a bit quixotic considering she, like most Republicans, has been running against Obamacare since it was around to run against.

His staff said he had not received a reply to his most recent letter. But McMorris Rodgers wrote a more general response that ran Friday in the Washington Post – and The Spokesman-Review, with some quick rearranging of content by the copy desk – about how the new proposal would be much better for people with pre-existing conditions.

She said she was convinced of this as the mother of a child with Down syndrome, a pre-existing condition.

One section of the new proposal, if it should survive a rewrite in the Senate, would allow states to set up high-risk pools that would allow insurance companies to charge people with pre-existing conditions more, and then help cover the added costs in premiums.

Asked if Washington was likely to set up such a pool, Inslee at first said he was hesitant to speculate on anything in the bill surviving because it was not likely to pass the Senate in its current condition. But he quickly warmed to the topic, saying those high-risk pools tend to be underfunded, that the states should not be forced to deal with them, and if he should be governor when such a law takes effect he would not be asking for Washington to join an exodus from the current funding model for pre-existing conditions.

And then there’s this

Not all discussions during or between bill signings are particularly weighty. During the signing of a bill on the ability to use abandoned cemeteries, Inslee suggested what might be considered a minor bill was actually an important piece of legislation.

“Some people are dying to get into cemeteries,” he said, while Rep. Ed Orcutt, the bill’s sponsor stood by stone-faced.

The Kalama Republican had clearly heard all manner of cemetery jokes during hearings and debates. As the room was clearing, he leaned over to Inslee and smiled: “I can out-pun you on this. Don’t even try.”

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