Posted by: sweeneyblog | April 17, 2012

The Legislative Junkie: End of the Special Session

Editor’s Note: Here’s another update from our correspondent in Olympia, the Legislative Junkie.

Guest Column: The Legislative Junkie

Guest Column: The Legislative Junkie

Riley recently reminded me that it had been far too long since I last filed a report for this blog. He is, as usual, right. What follows is a summary of where we are now and how we got there.

After a 60-day regular session, a 30-day 1st Special Session, and a middle-of-the-night, seven-hour-long 2nd Special Session, the Washington State Legislature has finished work on a supplemental budget, a jobs bill, and a host of other legislation. When Governor Gregoire called the legislature back for the 1st Special Session in early March, she called for a limited agenda and hoped for a quick end to negotiations.


Such a productive final 24 hours seemed unimaginable after a March 2nd coup in the Senate and a series of public arguments among the governor and legislative leaders on all sides. While early conservative budgets called for cuts to K-12 and Higher Education, Disability Lifeline, and state employee pensions, the final compromise left education funding untouched, Disability Lifeline still alive, and state employee pensions no less-funded than before. The biggest reforms that Republicans and the Senate’s “Coup Caucus” wanted were enacted, although in watered-down versions. And, the unthinkable happened: the legislature mustered a 2/3rds vote to eliminate a tax loophole for big banks. Despite the instability, acrimony, length, and stress of the process, some strong leadership and multi-dimensional political chess delivered a legitimate compromise – one that all sides seem prepared to campaign on this fall.

The Coup

Fifty days into the 60-day regular session, it looked like a budget deal was very close. Senator Ed Murray (D-43) and the Senate Democrats released a budget that made no cuts to education, preserved what was left of the social safety net, and closed a tax loophole on large banks. It closed the budget gap with help from an accounting maneuver: a one-day delay of payments to school districts that would not have resulted in any less money going to schools, but could have contributed to a budget shortfall in the next biennium. While conservatives objected to this provision, Senator Murray’s budget had strong support among majority House Democrats and the word was that he had 24 votes in the Senate – one vote shy of a majority. More than a week from sine die and it seemed inevitable that Murray would be successful in negotiating for one more vote. Then the coup happened.

A coup? Really?
Yes, really.

On Friday, March 2nd, three Senate Democrats – Jim Kastama (D-25), Rodney Tom (D-48), and Tim Sheldon (“D”-35) –voted with the Republicans to form a majority, take control of the Senate, and pass a series of bills that had not been voted out of committee – including the Republican budget. Majority(?) Senate Democrats, led by Lisa Brown (D-3), budget writer Ed Murray (D-43), and floor leader Tracey Eide (D-30) objected strongly, but could only muster 24 votes to the Republicans’ 25. After a series of procedural fencing maneuvers and tactical delays, this new majority (call it a “bipartisan ideological majority” or “the coup caucus” depending on which side you’re on) passed their budget after 2 AM that night. Democrats who stayed with their leadership expressed a number of objections to what went down. Some were about the process, some were about the content. I have separated them so that you may skip the process baloney if you want.


  1. Timing: This started about 90 minutes before a key legislative deadline (“cutoff” is the hill’s preferred jargon). If a House bill hadn’t been voted out of the Senate by 5 PM on Friday, it was dead (unless it is “Necessary To Implement the Budget”). So when the coup started, and carried past the cutoff deadline, all bills that were in line for a hearing were killed. As Senator (and candidate for State Auditor) Craig Pridemore (D-49) pointed out, because budget-related bills aren’t subject to cutoff, the coupsters could have pulled the budget at any time. Doing it when they did killed a number of good bills.
  2. Transparency: the coupsters demanded an immediate vote on their budget, even though it hadn’t been heard in committee and no one had seen it until it was brought to the floor. There was a scramble among lobbyists, the media, and legislators as paper copies were distributed. To delay and buy time for Democrats to regroup, Senator Eide invoked Senate Rule 64, demanding that the more-than-200-page bill be read in its entirety. When Senator Don Benton (R- the NRA) objected and accused her of stalling, she retorted, “I don’t know what the hell I’m voting on!” (The Democrats took little more than an hour to regroup, by which time the Senate Reading Clerk had made it to about page 37).
  3. Gridlock: While the coupsters declared they had “broken through the partisan gridlock,” they passed a budget that neither the Governor nor the House could support. So instead of negotiating one more vote for Senator Murray’s original budget – which wasn’t dramatically different from the House version – legislators were left trying to reconcile the Democratic House budget with the Republican Senate budget. That takes time, and is what forced the special session.


1. Cuts: the Republican budget was bad. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. How bad? Representative Chris Reykdal (D-22) made the following list in an op/ed:

-$37 million from low-income housing

-$4 million from crime victims

-$30 million from disaster recovery

-$12 million from children’s services

-$14 million from food assistance (food stamps)

-$150 million from low-income families and childcare

-$20 million from drug treatment

-$85 million from the disabled

-$9 million from the homeless with substance abuse issues

-$6 million from family planning

-$21 million from environmental protection and public health

-$36 million from clean up toxic sites

-$8 million from fish hatcheries and marine enforcement

-$15 million from K-12 programs including Running Start and Navigation 101

-$30 million from education reform (including national board bonuses)

-$41 million from higher education

-$206 million from public employee health insurance and pensions

+$7 million in mental health (the only improvement)

2. Gimmicks: the primary objection the coupsters had to the Murray budget was that it delayed an apportionment payment to school districts by one day. A $300 million payment to school districts that would have gone out on June 30, 2013 would go out instead on July 1, 2013. That bumps the cost into the 2013-15 biennium instead of the current 2011-13 biennium. Is that “kicking the can down the road”? Yes*. Did school districts care? No. Did teachers unions care? No. Would anyone receive less money as a result? No. But the Coup Caucus claimed that we cannot afford to kick the can down the road anymore! So was their budget free of gimmicks? No. The Republican budget skipped a $133 million payment to an already-underfunded public employee pension fund.

The State Actuary reported that this would increase the likelihood of that fund becoming insolvent, necessitating bigger payments in later years. It also would have put less money in the fund to invest, meaning lower investment returns in the long run. This is the very definition of kicking the can down the road. A campaign by public employees and strong objections from House Democrats eventually watered-down the initial Republican proposal, mercifully eliminating this gimmick, replacing it with a cut to early retirement benefits for state employees hired after May 1st of 2013.

*In the March 8th debate on the second version of the House budget, Republicans complained about can-kicking at least 9 times. Rumors abound that they have been bought-off by the powerful Big Can lobby.

The coup and the budget it produced forced a special session that began on March 12th, and caused serious tension in future negotiations. That tension spilled out into rare heated exchanges on the Senate floor and in committee hearings. Senate Democrats were clearly blindsided by the coup, and their shock and anger came through.

How did this happen? There are a number of causes, listed here in rough chronological order.

  1. Republican wins: In 2010, young Republican Senators posted wins in moderate districts that had been represented by Democrats. The new Republican Senators are largely social moderates (like the Roadkill Caucus), having delivered votes on marriage equality, but have narrowed the Democratic majority in the Senate and increased Republican influence in the budget process.
  2. Poor Senate leadership: There is tremendous dissatisfaction among Senate Democrats (both left and right) with Lisa Brown’s leadership. The Roadkill Caucus formed in the Senate out of dissatisfaction with her ideological leftiness, leading Senator Brown to give them more power. Conservative Democrats are, by the numbers, now overrepresented among committee chairs*. As she ceded power to the right of her caucus, she has angered Senators on the left (conflicts with her are one reason Senator Pridemore is leaving the Senate to run for statewide office). But despite the frustration within her caucus, she’s likely to stick around: Her most-often-whispered challenger for Majority Leader, Senator Derek Kilmer (D-26), is running for Norm Dicks’ seat in Congress.
  3. Last year’s Senate rules change: Last year, on the heels of the 2010 elections, the Senate changed its rules to allow a simple majority (25 votes) to amend the budget on the Senate floor. It previously required a 3/5 supermajority (30 votes). This made it possible for a simple majority to both bring a bill directly to the floor and replace its contents via a striking amendment. That’s what happened on March 2nd. According to “sources familiar with the issue,” Senator Sheldon and his compatriots have been planning the coup since last year.
  4. Greg Nickels (what?): Put this one in the rampant speculation category, but it has been outlined to me by two separate muckamucks in state politics, so bear with me here… Senator Kastama is running for Secretary of State in 2012, right? So is state former state Senator Kathleen Drew (D-formerly of Issaquah, now of Thurston County) and Republican Thurston County Auditor Kim Wyman. Because of Senator Kastama’s high-profile fights against his party, the story goes, State Party Chair Dwight Pelz is refusing to offer Senator Kastama any party support for his campaign (such strong-arm tactics certainly fit with Pelz’s modus operandi). And it was Pelz who recruited his friend and former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels into the Secretary of State race. That bruise to his ego was allegedly too much for Senator Kastama, who responded by refusing to vote for the Murray budget under any circumstances. It’s a stretch of a story, sure, but certainly plausible given the egos of all involved.

* Some amateur statistics on that score: Of the 15 Senate committees, 14 chairs are appointed by leadership (the Lieutenant Governor is the chair of Senate Rules by law). All 14 committee chairs come from the 27 member Senate Democratic caucus. How many of the 14 committees are chaired by the 8 conservative Senate Democrats (Hargrove, Hatfield, Haugen, Hobbs, Kastama, Sheldon, Shin, and Tom)?

Senate Democratic Caucus Chairs


All others

Total chairs

Committee chairs




Total members








So while only 52% of Senate Democrats chair committees, 75% of conservative Senate Democrats chair committees.

But Who Won?

Shame on you! Law-making and session politics aren’t about the horse race, but instead about making people’s lives better and using our public institutions to engage in constructive debate about the future of blah blah blahzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….

Seriously. Who won?

Governor Gregoire
Roughly 36 hours before sine die, the governor finally took a big leadership step: she locked negotiators in a room and didn’t let them leave until they agreed. After years of bad budget cuts, in her final year Governor Gregoire negotiated a balanced budget that preserved state services and closed some tax loopholes. Also, there’s that whole gay marriage thing. Not bad for a final session.

House Democrats
Speaker Frank Chopp (D-43) and the House Democrats passed four budgets using a variety of approaches and combinations, all while funding education and maintaining social services. The final budget closely resembled the budget the House passed the week before session ended. And the House Dems showed no sign of the kind of unrest that plagued Senate Dems this year. On top of that, there’s a liberal group of 13 freshman Democrats who have largely hung together – and who, if most return next year – will be a major force pulling the House to the left.

Joe Zarelli
Despite a history of being the subject of embarrassing news stories, Senator Joe Zarelli’s (R-18) star continues to rise. He led the coup that put conservatives in charge in the Senate, then held that caucus together throughout special session. While his caucus eventually negotiated away their budget changes, they achieved at least part of each of their major policy goals.

The Washington State Labor Council’s top priority this session was the capital budget, better known this year as the Jobs Bill. After dying a number of deaths, the billion-dollar construction bond package passed in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. The act is expected to directly create 20,000 new jobs building and modernizing transportation, education, environmental, and community infrastructure – and spark private-sector economic development.

And who lost?

Lisa Brown
While the Senate Majority Leader showed plenty of righteous indignation on TVW, she was still unable to keep or regroup her majority. And there’s a more-than-decent chance she that Democrats will lose seats in the Senate and Brown will be Senate Minority Leader.

The Reproductive Parity Act – which would require health insurance policies that cover maternity to cover abortion as well – died during the coup despite having bipartisan support. Senator Steve Litzow (R-41), a rare pro-choice, pro-marriage equality Republican who used to serve on the board of NARAL’s political action fund, voted against bringing the bill to the floor. Democrats attempted to consider the act mid-coup, to force the issue. Senators Litzow and Tom – another pro-choice conservative – voted with the Coup Caucus to kill the bill.

What Now?

It is unlikely that the relatively productive tone of the final days of session will carry through to next year. The House will get more liberal, the Senate will get more conservative, and there’s no telling who will be the next governor. But for now it seems that most legislators in Olympia got what they wanted – something to can campaign on.



  1. Excellent synopsis and breakdown of the session. Really good work.

    There is one thread that I would quibble with. The use of the work “Coup”. It was certainly dramatic. The resulting budget proposal, as you accurately point, did suck. But it was not a coup. It was democracy.

    The Dem leadership could not muster the votes, a majority, to pass a budget. Just because you are in the majority, does not mean you do not have to work for votes.

  2. I concur with Frank on the excellent reporting!

  3. […] Earlier this year, a gang of three Democratic senators switched sides to vote for the Republican budget which had already been voted down in committee. This guaranteed a special session and killed a number of bills slated to be passed. These three Senators (Tom, Kastama and Sheldon) are all members of the “Roadkill Caucus”, with Hobbs. Why didn’t Hobbs join them in their legislative maneuver? “Because I felt that you don’t provide any votes for any budget until reforms go through. We were successful the year before, we had a bipartisan budget but at the same time we funded family planning, we protected the most vulnerable. The budget should not be a social tool to punish people. Had they not sided with the Republicans but instead simply withheld their votes, we would have the same budget.” […]

  4. […] Democratic one that had been discussed, debated and negotiated. It was covered by my guest writer, the Legislative Junkie, here.  This meant that the budget that was passed had to be a compromise between the Democratic […]

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