Raechel Dawson, Kirkland Reporter, 6/20/2013
Nearly 300 Kirkland residents and members of political action committees chanted "Courage for kids" and "Kids and families first" at a rally on Wednesday evening to let legislators know they want a budget passed - and one that reflects amply funded education as well.
Meanwhile, Washington state Sen. Andy Hill supporters attempted to block protests with high-held picket signs on the sidewalk near the rally at Heritage Park in Kirkland.
The rally, organized by Our Economic Future coalition, was to call on Sen. Hill (R-45, Redmond) and Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Medina) to pass a state budget before the inaction causes a government shutdown on July 1.
But the protesters not only want a budget before government shuts down, many, who were with the Washington Education Association, want a budget that is aligned with the Washington Supreme Court's mandate for the Legislature to amply fund education. Proposed budgets only allocate $250 to $300 million in additional revenue for education, despite the McCleary decision, which calls for $1 billion this year alone, said Steven Miller, who is vice president-elect of the Washington Education Association.
However, a spokesman for Hill said the Senate budget allocates $1 billion in additional funding for education and the House of Representatives allocated $905 million in their base budget as well as $1 billion in a proposal if specific tax increases were enacted.
The two senators have significant influence on the budget process, as Hill is the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and Tom is the leader for the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.
The Legislature is in the midst of a second special session due to a lack of compromise, and rally-goers believe Republican leaders in the Senate have held the budget "hostage" in an attempt to pass policy bills.
"It's already starting to affect us because we're at the end of the school year and our principals are trying to plan for next year," said Miller, who is also a social studies teacher in the Bellevue School District. "They don't know if they're going to be able to fill all of their positions. This is not a budget issue, this is the state Republican senators trying to force policy down everyone's throat in the second special session."
But Hill said in a statement on Thursday the Legislature has all of the resources they need to pass a budget. And in just the past week have they had $480 million in additional money become available, which is "more than enough to bridge the gap between the Senate and House of Representatives."
"My colleague Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom has made it explicitly clear that a suite of reform bills have been removed from negotiations in order to get leadership from the House of Representatives to commit to passing a budget," Hill said. "There is absolutely no reason that we cannot and should not finish our work quickly and I'm continuing to have comprehensive negotiations with the Governor and House of Representatives."
Hill said a government shutdown is "completely out of the question" and that both sides will immediately come together over a final plan. Hill said the Senate budget plan has $200 million more for basic education than the House of Representatives' plan.
However, Kirkland City Councilwoman Shelley Kloba spoke at the rally and urged citizens to get involved and write to legislators about how they are affected by budget decisions. She told the community to stand together to demand legislators agree on a budget that does not present the "false choice" between education and critical needs of the most vulnerable.
"We can build a world-class education system but if the kids are hungry and stressed because of instability in their home environments, then we will not be successful," said Kloba. "It is so important to provide the support that families need so they don't have to choose between healthcare and putting food on the table."
She said the Kirkland community values all people and that the budget needs to reflect the realities of diverse families that are consistent with the values of a strong education and a stable family.
However, three Hill supporters think many state-funded programs should simply be shutdown.
"Taxes are already too high," said Bob Abbot. "Spending is out of control. Many programs in the state should simply be abandoned and shutdown."
Dale Fonk said Hill is doing a fabulous job as leader of the Ways and Means Committee and thinks "these folks" want more money on top of the proposed $1 billion to education the Senate budget proposal calls for.
"The claim about holding the budget hostage could be applied equally to the Governor's office or the House," Fonk said. "They're all digging in their heels and so you can't point your finger at any one of them and say they're holding the budget hostage any more than any of the others."
Some rally attendees criticized both legislators.
Kirkland resident Vicki Neumeier, who works as a Seattle nurse, said Hill and Tom are putting tax breaks for special interests ahead of funding healthcare for part-time state employees, which include part time nurses, she adds.
"Now is not the time to put education against healthcare and other social services," she said. "I see every day what happens when people lose access to healthcare. Too often do patients wait too long for the care they need and instead things that could easily be fixed by preventative care, turns into a life threatening tumor, millions of dollars, medical bills, months of treatment and even death."
Joel Connelly, SeattlePI, 5/14/2013
State Sen. Sharon Brown, a Tri-Cities Republican who would let businesses refuse to serve gays and lesbians, is running for reelection with support from fellow Senate Republicans as well as the two Democrats who joined them in a coalition that took over the Senate Senate.
KNDO-TV in the Tri-Cities reports that Brown filed for reelection with backing from Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach. Brown was appointed earlier this year to succeed GOP Sen. Jerome Devlin and must get elected in her own right.
Brown is lead sponsor of a broadly written bill that would allow businesses to deny goods and services to gay customers if to do so would violate "sincerely held religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs or matters of conscience." The pro-discrimination legislation is cosponsored by 12 GOP senators, only one of them -- State Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor -- from the Puget Sound region.
The legislation was inspired by the case of Arlene's Flowers in Richland, whose owner Baronelle Stutzman refused the request of a longstanding customer, Robert Ingersoll, that she supply flowers for his same-sex wedding. She did so, said Stutzman, "because of my relationship with Jesus Christ."
Attorney General Bob Ferguson has told Stutzman she is in violation of state law, saying:
"Under the Consumer Protection Act it is unlawful to discriminate against customers on the basis of sexual orientation. This means that as a seller of goods and services, you will not refuse to sell floral arrangements for same sex weddings if you sell floral arrangements for opposite sex weddings."
The American Civil Liberties Union is also suing the Arlene's Flowers owner on behalf of Ingersoll and his partner Curt Freed.
In introducing her legislation to allow discrimination, Sen. Brown said: "There is a glaring lack of protection for religion under state law."
Numerous Protestant churches, plus a group called Catholics for Marriage Equality, supported legalization of same-sex marriage on last November's ballot. As well, churches were a mainstay of the 1960′s Civil Rights movement that campaigned for the end to racial discrimination in the Deep South.
Senate Majority Leader Tom has, in the past, proclaimed his support for ending discrimination against gays and lesbians. He was part of the 28-21 State Senate majority that endorsed same-sex marriage last year.
The bill, sponsored by 13 Senate Republicans, carefully steers clear of those protected under federal law. Federal law bars discrimination based on race, religion or disability. As yet, however, there is no federal statute barring discrimination based on sexual preference.
Sen. Brown's bill would allow such discrimination.
Josh Feit, Publicola, 4/17/13
State Sen. Keren Keiser (D-33, Des Moines) tried to force an omnibus insurance bill to the senate floor today in a procedural ploy to force a vote on the Reproductive Parity Act, which she said she would have included as an amedment to the bigger bill. It was the Democrats second attempt in the last 24 hours to force a vote on the RPA--legislation sponsored by Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens) that would make insurers that cover maternity care also cover abortions. The bill has been controversial all session, with Republican committee chairs in the Majority Coalition Caucus refusing to let it out of committee even though 25 senators--a majority--have signed on in support.
Democrats see symbolism here: When Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Medina), the Democrat who joined with the Republicans at the beginning of the session to give the GOP an effective majority, took over as MCC leader, he said he would not put the Democrats' social agenda at risk. By forcing the issue on the RPA, the Democrats hope to demonstrate that the opposite is true. Democratic minority leader Sen. Ed Murray (D-43, Capitol Hill) said yesterday: "Sen. Tom said he wanted the senate to operate under new rules of a philosophical majority. Well, we have a philosophical majority in support of these bills, and he won't allow members to vote their conscience on them."
Murray was lamenting about yesterday's failed motion to force the RPA to the floor in a procedural move known as the "Ninth Order", which allows senators to pull bills from committee if they have the votes.
This morning Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33, Des Moines) tried a different procedural move. She attempted to move a bill that was already voted out of the rules committee and queued up for a floor a vote to actually be scheduled for a floor vote (no Ninth Order necessary for bills like that.) The bill is a non-controversial omnibus insurance bill that simply updates code language (it passed the house with lopsided numbers and passed out of the senate committee unanimously.) Keiser explained that she wanted to bring the bill forward in order to attach the insurance-related RPA bill as an amendment.
The motion failed, but the Democrats say they were showing Sen. Tom (or the public) that there was an easy way to vote on the RPA without forcing him to defy his own caucus by supporting a procedural f-u to his caucus members (which is one of his main objections to the Ninth Order).
However, as majority leader, it's Tom's job to schedule bills that have been voted out of rules onto the floor--so he could do with his wand what Keiser was trying to do procedurally--and bring a bill forward that his caucus signed off on.
Tom has until this afternoon to bring the bill forward, but don't count on it. Despite supporting the RPA himself, Tom knows that the MCC will fall apart if he creates an opportunity (even one that doesn't involve procedural shenanigans) for the pro-choice bill to pass.
There were certainly some fireworks during Keiser's motion. Republican leader Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-9, Ritzville) was gaveled down for accusing Keiser of impugning individual senators' motives; Lt. Gov. Brad Owen overruled Schoesler, saying Keiser was simply justifying her move .
And the whole show ended with even more finger pointing. Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35, Potlatch), the other conservative Democrat who joined the MCC, accused Sen. Murray of being out of line for saying the MCC was dominated by Republicans (it has two Democrats and 23 Republicans).
Murray responded by saying he had a First Amendment right to free speech.
Sarah Schweppe, Publicola, 4/17/13
Results from a recent poll shows that voters in the 48th legislative district—the long contested Microsoft suburbs—are leaning to the left, as it has been for the last decade, and that they aren't very fond of state Sen. Rodney Tom, who joined with the Republicans this year, ousting the Democratic majority, to become the leader of the Majority Coalition Caucus.
When 400 respondents were asked to rate their feelings about a batch of politicians including Sen. Tom (who used to represent the district as a Republican until switching parties in 2006) on a scale of one to 100, with 100 indicating very favorable or “warm” feelings, zero indicating very cold or unfavorable feelings, and 50 meaning not particularly warm or cold, Senator Tom averaged a 46. Twenty-three percent of respondents indicated warm feelings above 50, and 26 percent indicated cool feelings.
The two Democratic reps from the district, Reps. Ross Hunter and Cyrus Habib, who won their seats in the 2012 election by a large margin, scored in the 60s on the poll.
Gov. Jay Inslee received an average of 52, and the Washington State Legislature as a whole received an average of 47.
The poll, which was commissioned by the liberal group Fuse also found that a plurality of the those polled, 42 percent, identified as moderate with 28 percent identifying as liberal and 26 percent as conservative. When it came to party ID, 35 percent said they were Democrats, 32 percent said they were independent, ad 30 percent said they were Republicans.
In another question, 25 percent of respondents rated Senator Tom’s performance good or excellent and 44 percent rated it poor or fair. By way of comparison, President Barack Obama, the only other politician we saw numbers for, received 52 percent rating his performance good or excellent and 48 percent rating it fair or poor.
President Obama won 63 percent of the vote in the 48th in 2008 and 61 percent in 2012, while Senator Tom won his seat with 52 percent of the vote in 2010. Senator Tom has won all his seats, Republican or Democrat, with just over 50 percent of the vote.
Speaking of elections: Here's the worst news for Tom. Even though Democrats had the advantage—forty-four percent of respondents were leaning Democratic in the 2014 election while 38 percent said they would vote for the Republican candidate—only 22 percent of respondents said Tom deserves reelection.
The poll was performed by Myers Research and Strategic Services, a research firm in Springfield, Va.
Brian M. Rosenthal, The Seattle Times, 4/17/13
OLYMPIA -- Democrats fumed Wednesday afternoon after the Republican-run state Senate declined to vote on a bipartisan gun-control bill before a key legislative deadline.
State Rep. Roger Goodman, who sponsored the bill, said he and others were "seething with anger" after hearing the measure would not get a vote before the 5 p.m. cutoff, likely ending its chance this legislative session.
The bill, House Bill 1840, would require some gun owners with a restraining or protective orders against them to temporarily surrender their guns while the order is in effect. Supporters see that as a protection for domestic violence victims, but opponents see it as intrusive and potentially unconstitutional.
The issue was highlighted in a recent New York Times story.
The measure was seen as gun-control advocates' top priority after a string of high-profile defeats this session, including on a proposal to expand background checks for firearms sales.
The bill passed 61-37 in the House and 5-0 (with one abstention) in the Senate Law & Justice Committee after senators included an amendment to add more judicial oversight.
Once it got to the full Senate, several members expressed concern "that an individual who has not committed a crime would lose their guns," said Sen. Mike Padden, a Spokane Valley Republican who chairs the Senate Law & Justice Committee.
Padden said he supported the bill, but "I don't make all these decisions."
Goodman said that "I guess these senators don't mind guns remaining in the hands of domestic abusers, and they're going to have to answer for that."
Senate Democrats considered making a procedure move to bring the measure to the floor, but decided against it.
The Senate did pass one gun-control bill Wednesday -- House Bill 1612, which would require people convicted of a firearms-related felony to register with law enforcement. The database of firearms felons would be maintained by the Washington State Patrol.
The bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Mike Hope of Lake Stevens, passed 41-7. It had passed the House 85-10, but now must go back there for approval of a technical change before going to Gov. Jay Inslee for final approval.
The apparent death of HB 1840 came on the same day an effort in the U.S. Senate to expand background checks failed.
Washington state gun-control advocates described the failures as evidence a gun-control ballot initiative is needed.
"It's time for the people to lead," said Zach Silk, campaign manager for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, in an email about the U.S. Senate vote.
Joel Connelly, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4/8/13
The Washington Dream Act was squelched in the State Senate a week ago, when the Republican chair of the Higher Education Committee refused to let her committee vote on the legislation, which would make undocumented students eligible for State Need Grants to attend college.
Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, not only refused a vote, but canceled a hearing for which more than 100 students had come to Olympia, ready to testify in many cases that they have lived since early childhood in the Evergreen State.
Now, Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom has come up with a Pilate-like washing of hands explanation for the bill died: He is blaming Democratic colleagues who sponsored and supported it.
Tom, a renegade Democrat from Medina, leads a coalition of 24 Republicans and two Democrats who took control of the Legislature's upper chamber in January and parceled out committee chairmanships.
Tom told the Yakima Herald Republic that Democrats were offered the chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee in January, but turned it town. "It (the Dream Act) would have gotten a vote," he said. "If anybody's to blame (Democrats) had the ball in their court."
Senate colleagues cried foul on Monday. Sen. Jeanne Kohl Welles, D-Seattle, who was offered higher ed, said she is "incredulous" that Tom would shift blame.
"He's the most powerful member of the Senate and yet he can't get a bill out of committee, a committee he sits on, on a bill that he publicly stated he supported, and when he knows that a solid majority of the Senate wants to pass it on the Senate floor," said Kohl-Welles.
The Washington Dream Act passed by a strong, bipartisan 77-20 vote last month in the state House of Representatives. Twenty-two of 44 House Republicans voted for the legislation.
One legislative vehicle could force the full Senate to vote on the legislation -- the so-called 9th Order. It was used by Tom and two other conservative Democrats last year when, in a lightning strike, they masterminded approval of a Republican-written budget.
But Tom isn't going to muster any snap majority to aid undocumented students. "The only other way to get a bill to the floor would be to go to the 9th Order, which we're not going to do," he told the Herald-Republic. Why not? "It's seldom if ever done because everyone has to be locked down."
Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the Senate Democratic leader, had a different explanation for why the Dream Act died. Tom allowed far-right Republican senators to chair key committees, knowing they would kill even bills that Tom claims to support.
"Sen. Tom promised that his caucus would foster collaboration and bipartisanship," said Murray. "Then he put some of the most extreme members of his caucus in charge of key committees, and stacked the Rules Committee to make certain nothing could pass without the blessing of the most extreme members of his caucus."
"Instead of blaming a Democrat for something that's outside of her control, Sen. Tom should do something that's entirely within his control as Senate Majority leader. He should give the Senate the chance to vote on a bill its members favor, not hide behind the skirts of his committee chair."
On Monday afternoon, State Senate Republicans tweeted that they've expanded the State Need Grant program to aid 4,600 additional students.
Yet, by parliamentary maneuver, aid to undocumented students, pursuing the American dream, has been denied.
John Stang, Crosscut, 4/6/13
Setting the stage for tense negotiations with Gov. Jay Inslee and House Democrats, the state Senate passed a $33.21 billion tentative 2013-2015 budget Friday. The budget has no new taxes, no closures of tax exemptions, and $1 billion earmarked to start complying with a Washington Supreme Court ruling -- the "McCleary decision" -- that the state is not meeting its constitutional duties to provide basic education for grades K-12.
The Senate approved the budget on a 30-to-18 vote.
The House Democrats' budget is expected to include new revenues, put more into education and protect more social service programs from cuts. Establishing one front for further battles, Senate Democrats argued that $166 million of the $1 billion that the Washington Senate budget allocates to basic education fix-it work comes from an unconstitutional source.
However, their chief budget negotiator disagreed.
During Friday's debate, Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, contended that part of the McCleary $1 billion comes from state Department of Natural Resources trust land: timber sales money normally provided for school construction. He said it is unconstitutional to reroute state trust land revenue to the state's operating budget to fund the McCleary obligations. Earlier, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina and the House's chief budget writer, made the same criticism.
Frockt warned, "We're going to get a lawsuit out of this."
Republicans did not reply to Frockt's statement during Friday's Senate debate. However, the Senate Democrats' chief budget negotiator, Sen. James Hargrove of Hoquiam, participated with the Republicans in writing the budget. Hargrove said the Senate Ways & Means Committee legal staff researched that issue and concluded the shift is constitutional.
The politics of Friday's budget vote were complicated.
The Majority Coalition Caucus -- 23 Republicans and two Democrats -- had the votes to punch through any budget it wanted. But the coalition wanted the endorsement of a good chunk of the 24 minority Democrats in order to jockey for a good position in upcoming budget talks with the Democratic-controlled House. The House is expected to unveil its proposed budget in the next few days.
So, Hargrove and the Democrats' No. 2 budget writer Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, represented the minority in the putting together the budget with the majority coalition with the understanding they would support the finished product. Democrats described the process as bipartisan, but repeatedly added that the actual budget is not bipartisan.
Ultimately, nine Democrats voted for the budget along with 21 Republicans. Two were Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch -- the two Democrats in the majority coalition. Besides Hargrove and Nelson, five other minority Democrats -- the most moderate ones -- voted for the budget. On the Republican side, strong conservative Sen. Mike Padden, R- Spokane Valley, voted against the budget. Sen. Mike Carrell, R- Lakewood, is hospitalized with a blood disease, and was absent.
Four of the Democrats voting for the budget, including Hargrove and Nelson, want the Senate to explore finding new tax revenue or closing exemptions to find additional money later in this session's budget negotiations.
No new taxes and keeping all tax exemptions intact has been the philosophical cornerstone of the alliance Senate Majority Leader Tom, Sheldon and the 23 Republicans. Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and the coalition's chief budget writer, said, "We built this in a bipartisan manner. ...We had a clear message from the voters that they don't want new taxes."
Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, "We have a balanced budget, and we didn't raise taxes."
Hargrove said the philosophically split Senate needed to pass a tentative budget on Friday in order to have something on the table to begin talks with the House and Gov. Jay Inslee. "If we didn't pass a budget tonight, we never would have gotten one out. Then we would have to wait for one to come out of the House," Hargrove said.
The top priority of both sides has been meeting the mandates of the McCleary decision, which essentially boils down to phasing in all-day kindergartens statewide, dramatically reducing teacher-student ratios in grades K-3, and providing all the equipment, buildings and buses to handle those improvements -- all by 2018.
Last year, a bipartisan task force of legislators and educators settled on a $1.4 billion McCleary recommendation for 2013-2015 -- with the Republican House members dissenting. The Republican senators on that task force did not endorse the $1.4 billion nor did they offer an alternative plan last year. Inslee believes $1.26 billion will be needed for 2013-2015. The Senate budget allocates $1 billion. In the House, Hunter has talked about a $1.4 billion McCleary appropriation, but that won't be nailed down until the House Democrats unveil their budget.
The $166 million in trust land revenue helped piece together the Senate's $1 billion.
Meanwhile, Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, criticized another facet of the $1 billion -- taking $321 million earmarked to teacher cost-of-living salary increases under Initiative 732, and rerouting that money to the 2013-2015 McCleary projects. "More than $300 million in education spending is coming from salary increases that teachers aren't getting," she said.
The minority Democrats attempted to add $226 million to the $1 billion in McCleary money, wanting to reduce the teacher-student ratios in kindergarten and first grade in high-poverty schools andincrease the annual instruction times in grades 9-12 from 1,000 hours to 1,080 hours. Some training and evaluation overhauls were also included in that proposed amendment.
The majority coalition defeated that proposed amendment by one vote. Hill said the $1 billion funds the transportation and equipment costs to put the McCleary decision into action. "The superintendents came to us and said: 'We're not ready for class reductions yet.' ...This is really a sequencing problem," he said.
The Democrats unsuccessfully tried to add another $229 million to the budget with several defeated amendments. The defeated amendments included restoring housing help for 35,000 poor people, and restoring a cut that trims one type of assistance to poor people from $197 per month per person to $99 per month per person.
"There are hundreds of millions of dollars of tax exemptions that can be closed to support programs like this," said Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle. Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, said: "We can't say we're going to focus on education and throw all those poor souls under the bus while on the way."
Tom James, Crosscut, 2/23/13
Sometimes, even support from half the Senate isn't enough to get a bill to a vote on the floor.
On Friday, Republicans on the Senate Law and Justice committee voted down five moderate bills aimed at curbing gun violence. The bills went down in a last-minute hearing that was held only after Democrats demanded it.
Two of the ill-fated bills had 20 Senators signed onto them. According to its sponsor, one of them had a promised majority if it reached the Senate floor. In addition to ruffling feathers, the move by Republicans to bury these bills raised serious questions about the fate of other popular gun control measures.
In the weeks preceding Friday's hearing, Spokane Republican Mike Padden, the Law and Justice committee chair, had refused to schedule any of the gun control bills for a public hearing. On Friday, Padden and other Republicans on the committee repeatedly pointed to the lack of public hearings on the bills as the reason they were voting them down, claiming that they did not have enough information.
"Protest," said Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, was the reason Democrats forced this predictable vote. "It's not fair for one side to take a rigid position, not even having hearings on bills that it knows have bipartisan support on the floor."
The bills would have mandated stiffer penalties for letting kids get their hands on loaded guns; created a panel to study ways to reduce gun violence; required that police offer to temporarily store firearms; and demanded more evidence before restoring gun rights to anyone found mentally incompetent to stand trial.
Senate Bill 5710, from Sen. Jeannie Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, had 23 cosigners, including Senate majority coalition leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Senate heavyweight Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island.
In the progress of a bill through the legislature, public hearings are typically the step just before a committee votes on whether to send the bill to the Senate or House floor for a vote. Preventing a bill from getting a hearing is one tactic employed by opponents to sink unpopular measures.
Thursday night, the Senate Law and Justice committee was scheduled to hold its last policy vote of the year. Committee Republicans used procedural maneuvers to keep the Democrat-sponsored gun bills out. When Democrats raised objections on Friday, a new hearing was scheduled. Just after noon, an email went out alerting staff that the hearing would be held at 1:30pm.
The maneuvering and the hastily scheduled vote raised questions about the future of other popular gun bills arriving from the House. Each would have to get through the Law and Justice committee before reaching the Senate. One measure -- Seattle Democrat Rep. Jamie Pedersen's universal background check bill -- is widely seen as having a decent chance of making it to the committee.
Whether the bill makes it out of committee is another story. When asked, Padden refused to speak specifically to Pedersen's bill. He would only say of any gun bill reaching his committee: "They'll have a tough row to hoe."
Brian M. Rosenthal, The Seattle Times, 2/13/13
OLYMPIA -- State Senate Republicans, who have already proposed repealing the state's never-implemented family-leave requirement, are now targeting Seattle's sick-leave law.
The law, which took effect in September, requires businesses with at least five employees operating in Seattle to provide paid sick leave to workers. Seattle is one of three major cities in the United States to have the law.
Senate Bill 5728 would take Seattle's law off the books by declaring that the Legislature has the sole responsibility for sick-leave requirements. Senate Bill 5726 would scale back Seattle's law by prohibiting cities from requiring sick leave for employers based outside the city.
Both bills were introduced Tuesday by Centralia Republican John Braun and are supported by Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina.
No Seattle senators have signed on.
Braun said his main problem with Seattle's law is that it is affecting businesses that are based outside of Seattle, but do some business there. In addition, he said, "if this is a good idea, it's a good idea on the state level, and this is a statewide program, and that's the Legislature's purview."
"These are all nice ideas," he added. "But we can't afford every nice idea. We have to be realistic."
The move would be similar to one made is Wisconsin in 2011, when Republicans repealed a Milwaukee sick-leave law.
Officials in Seattle and Olympia blasted Braun's proposals.
Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata, who sponsored the city law, called the proposed bills "a violation of trust in the democratic process."
Democratic State Sen. Karen Keiser, ranking member of the Health Care Committee, went further, calling the proposals "an in-your-face kind of assault on workers' rights."
"I don't know what's going on here. I guess they just like to beat up on poor people," she said, adding, "I'm surprised, I'm shocked, I'm upset, and I'll fight it."
A related proposal in the House, 1781 (which says a city can't impose sick-leave requirements on businesses based elsewhere) will get a hearing next week, said Democratic Rep. Mike Sells, who chairs the House Labor & Workforce Development Committee. But Sells said his committee and the House in general is focused on expanding sick leave -- not restricting it.
Andrew Garber, Seattle Times, 2/2/13
OLYMPIA -- During their first three weeks in power, Senate Republicans have introduced bills to require parental notification for abortions, allow ranchers to kill wolves and let people ride motorcycles without a helmet.
Also on the list: plans to revamp workers' compensation benefits, repeal the state's family leave act and assign A-F grades to public schools. There's also talk of dumping the state employee pension system in favor of a less-expensive, 401(k)-type plan.
Much of this reflects suppressed energy. Republicans sat on the sidelines for eight years venting steam while Democrats ran the show. Now is their chance to bring forward bills that previously died quicker than the printer could spit them out.
"We've had Seattle-centric dominance and far-left dominance of the Legislature, and these ideas were just killed on the outset," said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, the deputy Senate Republican leader.
Yet there's also risk of going too far to the right and portraying the Republican Party as out of step with voters in the central Puget Sound region -- voters the GOP needs if it wants to control the Legislature.
"In both houses, Republicans are now within striking distance of getting majorities, but the districts they still have to win are the most moderate" suburban districts, said Chris Vance, a former state GOP chairman. "To win those districts you've got to ... show you're not stereotypical Republicans."
As it is, Republicans were only able to wrest control of the state Senate from Democrats because Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, crossed party lines to caucus with the GOP.
Democrats hold a 55-43 majority in the House and would have a 26-23 majority in the Senate, had Tom and Sheldon not switched caucuses.
Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray, while disappointed not to be in the majority, doesn't seem particularly worried about the Republican measures. He contends the GOP is digging itself into a political hole. In fact, his caucus is maneuvering to schedule floor votes on GOP proposals when they'll get the most media coverage.
"In my mind, it's a fairly far-right agenda," Murray said. "Their agenda is out of the mainstream of Washington. On choice alone, they are simply not where Washington voters are."
Murray was referring to a Benton-sponsored measure requiring parents to be notified before girls under age 18 can get an abortion.
The bill originally included provisions to repeal state law allowing abortion. But Benton said that was a "drafting error" and later submitted a version that removed the language.
Although 17 members of the GOP-led Senate caucus have signed onto the bill, not everyone is on board.
Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, supports abortion rights and is co-sponsoring legislation this session to require insurance companies to cover the procedure.
Asked if he was concerned that bills like the parental-notification measure were sending out the wrong message about his caucus and its objectives, Litzow shrugged.
"You have a 25-member caucus. You have wide views. Every senator is doing what they believe is right for their district," he said. "We haven't seen anything come out of committee. When they come out of committee, then we'll pause."
Circumspect for now
There's no guarantee any of the GOP measures will get far, even if they pass the Senate. The state House has a strong Democratic majority that's taken a dim view in the past of many ideas the GOP is putting forward. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee is an unknown factor at this point.
House Democrats are being circumspect for now.
"We're going to focus on our agenda, and we'll wait to see what bills come over. At this point, it's too early to speculate," said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.
Senate Republicans hope their long-suppressed ideas for change will resonate with voters and persuade Democrats to put their proposals into law.
"When they get a good airing, the public is going to embrace a lot of these ideas," said Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Plus there's old-fashioned politics. The GOP-led caucus in the Senate isn't the only one looking for a dance partner.
Democrats "are in the same boat. If they want some of their stuff passed, they have to work with us," said Tom, who was appointed Senate majority leader after he agreed to caucus with the Republicans.
Majority leaders in the Senate have indicated that not all of their bills are created equal. The Republican caucus, for example, has downplayed Benton's parental-notification measure.
"We are focused on jobs, education and the budget. We will not divide our caucus on issues that are going to be divisive because we want to make sure we're focused on issues that matter to the people of Washington state," Tom said when asked about the abortion bill.
Legislation with the highest priority, Tom and other members of his caucus said, deals with issues such as reducing the cost of workers' compensation and retooling the state's K-12 system.
One measure, for instance, plows into the controversial subject of letting workers settle compensation claims for a lump-sum amount rather than pursuing a lifetime disability pension or other benefits.
The topic bogged down the Legislature for weeks in 2011 until a compromise was reached, and passed into law, that allowed the option of settlements for workers age 55 and older, phasing in workers age 50 and older by 2016.
The new Senate GOP proposal, Senate Bill 5127, would eliminate the age restriction. Labor has fought this issue in the past, arguing that workers going through trauma aren't in a good position to negotiate a lump-sum payment.
"You want them to heal up and give them training and get them back into the work force. You don't want to trick them or play to where they are weak so that they settle for pennies on the dollar," said Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council.
The measure is one of several bills Republicans say are designed to give injured workers more options and reduce overall workers' compensation costs.
As for other bills, like the ones sponsored by Benton on abortion and on riding motorcycles without a helmet, "members are free to introduce anything they want," Schoesler said. "But it still boils down to whether it gets out of committee and whether it has 25 votes on the floor."
Benton, who has introduced roughly 50 bills so far this session compared with 11 last year, said he's happy his measures are even getting a hearing.
"I know that all the bills you introduce aren't going to pass," he said. "There are many more ways to kill it than there are to pass it."
Josh Feit, Publicola, 1/28/13
State senate Democrats made a lot of noise in the commerce and labor committee today--formerly called the labor and commerce committee until the Republican chair, Sen. Jenea Holmquist Newbry (R-13, Moses Lake) took over from the Democrats under the new Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus paradigm this year.
Over the angry objections of the Democratic minority, the committee passed a series of workers' compensation reform bills this afternoon that would lock in a set amount for worker injury payouts and expand employers' and workers' ability to bypass the standard payout system in favor of lump sum settlements.
Republicans worry that the state's workers' comp fund, supported by employer premiums for injuries and by 50/50 employer/worker premiums for medical coverage, isn't stable; the fund took a hit during the recession from both limp returns on Wall Street and from shrinking employment rolls, and premiums have been on the rise. To avoid increasing premiums again, the GOP is setting out to lower employee payouts to workers from the fund by encouraging the one-time settlements, which are likely less costly than ongoing care over time.
"I hope you will be the ones who will talk to the spouses of police and firefighters who have died and tell them, 'yes,' we have reduced your benefits," Sen. Steve Conway (D-29, Tacoma) said to the four Republicans who passed the five bills on consecutive 4-3 party line votes.
The new series of bills expand on workers' compensation changes that passed with Democratic support in 2011 as part of the budget deal. That legislation allowed workers to agree on lump sum settlements with employers rather than taking ongoing payouts from the state workers' compensation fund. Labor didn't like the 2011 reforms, arguing that injured workers are often in desperate situations, and opt for one lump sum over a steady (and larger over time) payout from the state workers' comp fund.
However, Democrats green-lighted the settlement approach in 2011 because it was limited--it only applied to workers 50 and older--and because the settlements did not apply to future medical bills.
In control of the senate now, the Republicans came back to shake off those limits. Under their proposal, any worker, regardless of age, could enter into a settlement, and the two sides could factor future medical costs into the deal. In the process, the worker would forfeit his or her right to seek medical compensation for the injury in the future.
Conway lectured the Republican members: "Maybe the taxpayer should have a say in this," he said. "This is a shifting of liability from the the employer to the taxpayer." He noted that down the road a workers may see "deterioration" in a knee injury, for example, so that he or she "can no longer stand, and they have to depend on the [state] safety net, not workers' comp."
Conway also noted that there is currently $779 million in the workers' compensation account--up from $181 million last year. Citing the $1.7 billion reserve in 2007 before the recession, Conway argued that the Republicans' fiscal concerns were unfounded.
Sen. Holmquist Newbry--who tried unsuccessfully (several times) to get the voluble Conway to wrap up his comments (the Republicans had another bill to introduce after voting on these--repealing the Family Medical Leave and Insurance Act), said she didn't see the new reforms as a cut.
In fact, she said that if workers didn't want to take the settlement, they could take a new workers' comp rate, which the committee also passed today, locked in at an average of 66.6 percent of a worker's salary, which is higher than the current 62 percent, she argued. (The payments range from 60 to 75 percent of a worker's salary.)
At that point, the two senators started talking over each other. Conway wanted to see the data. Holmquist Newbry wanted to move on. However, their squabble was a little off point. The issue of settlements, which labor worries will lock a young, injured worker into an immediate settlement because he has no savings to temper his emergency, is not comparable to steady payments from the workers' comp fund. "This looks like a direct cut," Conway's Democratic ally on the committee, Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D-11, Beacon Hill), said, "because you're excluding health care."
State labor leader Jeff Johnson, who was in the audience at today's hearing, said: "This saves buisness money by cutting costs out of the hide of injured workers."
However, the Republicans don't think the 66-percent average payment is off point. Holmquist Newbry's ally Mike Hewitt (R-16, Walla Walla), who was mostly reticent during Conway's angry soliloquies this afternoon, said sternly: "This is voluntary," reminding the Democrats that the settlements weren't replacing the payout system, but were simply adding an option.
A dangerously tempting option, labor fears, for a young injured logger with a family to support.
"This is not a new idea," Holmquist Newbry told the Democrats, who complained that the bills were being rushed through without being vetted. "The previous [Democratic] chairs just never allowed a hearing."
Joel Connelly, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1/23/13
A bill that would repeal Washington's Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act goes before the Commerce and Labor Committee of the Washington State Senate on Friday, backed by Republicans and the two dissident Democratic senators who have formed a coalition with them.
The act, passed in 2007 -- but twice delayed -- provides for partly paid leave of up to five weeks for the parents of newborn or newly adopted children. Its implementation was delayed in 2009 and 2011, a victim of the Great Recession, and is now scheduled to take effect in 2015.
The repeal legislation is supported by the coalition's two Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlach. Its other sponsors include newly elected State Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.
The legislation is bound to be controversial. "Every parent knows that the birth of a child is one of the most important and challenging experiences in life. Being able to spend even a few weeks at home to care for a newborn can pay short- and long-term dividends for both parents and children," said Collin Jergens of FUSE, a statewide progressive advocacy group.
Peter Callaghan, The News Tribune, 1/19/13
It would be easy to make the latest chapter in the Pam Roach story all about her.
Certainly, that's what the star of the bizarre but repetitive saga would like, as proved yet again by her hour-plus news "conference" last week. Her rambling recitation of history according to Pam was meant to show that she is victim, not villain. Anyone who finds her behavior offensive, troubling and even legally actionable is part of a vast conspiracy against her, she says.
It remains clear that no attempts to help the disturbed Republican senator from Auburn with either carrots or sticks are going to alter that belief or change her behavior. So attention should instead turn to the folks who are using her and abusing those who have to put up with her.
You see, the so-called Majority Coalition Caucus has decided to waive sanctions against Roach that were imposed in 2010 for abusive actions toward staffers. In doing that, coalition leaders reneged on terms of a settlement with one of Roach's victims.
The reason for the change of heart, for breaking legal agreements, is not that Roach's behavior has improved. In fact, it has perhaps worsened. It is not that she has completed the path created for her to return fully to her Republican caucus, a path that included seeking counseling. In fact, Roach has ignored and even condemned those requirements.
No, Roach got a get-out-of-jail-free card last week because without her, the Majority Coalition Caucus would not have a majority of votes in the Senate. She is back because she is the 25th vote.
Without her, new Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom would again be a not-especially welcome member of the Senate Democratic Caucus. Without her, Sens. Mark Schoesler and Linda Evans Parlette would again be relegated to minority party powerlessness.
But, the leaders protest, this coalition of two Democrats (Tom and Sen. Tim Sheldon) and 23 Republicans is not about power, it's about policy.
That's open to debate, more so after the events of last week. But one thing the coalition is surely not about is principle. Now that coalition members can taste power, their previous distaste for Roach's behavior has dissipated. They have become the Immoral Majority.
Roach has a long history of eccentric behavior, antics that she argues are either justified or overplayed because she is a maverick and a woman. But the worst episode involved a years-long verbal and emotional assault on GOP staff attorney Mike Hoover. That campaign culminated with a tirade in the GOP caucus room that an independent investigator determined violated the Senate's "respectful workplace" policy.
"People expressed concern for themselves personally and professionally, for their families and the causes they care about," wrote investigator Chris Farias of the atmosphere of fear in the Senate GOP. "The level of fear was quite remarkable and in my opinion, genuine."
After partially lifting the resulting sanctions when she was the 25th vote during a partial takeover by coalition members last March - an action that triggered Hoover's lawsuit - Roach immediately took up where she'd left off. She verbally attacked another GOP staffer, according to the report of a new investigation. That report was still in draft form when the Senate settled with Hoover, who gave up a demand for compensation as long as the sanctions against Roach were reinstated.
But when the election left Tom, Sheldon and the Republicans a chance to take control for good, coalition leaders decided instead to lift all sanctions against Roach, their majority maker.
The coalition did take some action in regard to the latest report of abuse. It launched an investigation into how the report documents were leaked to an Associated Press reporter and by whom. Tom and his plumbers apparently care less about how innocent staff members are treated than how guilty senators are treated.
"Any Senator or supervisor who knows of harassment or discrimination will take appropriate steps under this policy to correct/stop such misconduct," states the Senate's respectful-workplace policy. Perhaps to give staffers and others fair warning, it should be amended to add "unless the harasser is the 25th vote."