Gavels were rapped, hyperbolic rants were delivered, and anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman declared Democratic legislators to be arrogant sidesteppers of the law in what I would argue was the most entertaining public hearing of the state legislative session so far.

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The Senate Ways and Means Committee held a hearing for White Center-area Sen. Margarita Prentice's (D-11) SB 6843, which would temporarily suspend many of rules Tim Eyman's Initiative 960 established in 2007.

PubliCola covered the bill thoroughly in this morning's Fizz and in this post on Wednesday, so I'll spare you the heavy details. The short version: Eyman's I-960 requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, mandates that a press release be distributed every time a bill is introduced, and requires that a tax increases reference a 10-year fiscal analysis instead of the previous six-year analysis. SB 6843 would return a simple majority vote, restore the previous six-year analysis, and only require press releases for bills with public hearings.

The heated and slightly bizarre tone of the hearing was set with Clark County Sen. Don Benton's (R-17) opening testimony against the bill. Breaking protocol (it's not typical for a legislator to testify on a bill he or she isn't sponsoring), Sen. Benton posed lofty rhetorical questions to his colleagues, such as: "What does the will of the people mean to you?" and "Why does public knowledge frighten so many people here?" He answered his own question saying, "Do not take this action to eliminate the people's voice from what we do. To do so is to silence the hundreds of thousands who voted on this issue."

Auburn Sen. Pam Roach (R-31) followed Sen. Benton, with sharp testimony of her own.

"I'm going to continue fighting to make sure we have restraints on government taxation," Sen. Roach said. "Districts outside the city of Seattle are hoping we can keep taxes down this session and I hope so as well."

A panel of liberal lobbyists including Nick Federici, government affairs consultant for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance; Kim Able, vice President of the state League of Women Voters; and Teresa Mosqueda, advocacy and legislative relations director for Children's Alliance, spoke next. They highlighted the damaging effect another all-cuts budget would have on social services, given the deep cuts those services have already suffered during this recession.

"Tough times require tough decisions by tough leaders," said Federici. "It would be devastating to try and rely on all cuts to deal with the deficit."

The main event was, of course, Eyman's testimony. Eyman didn't make it through a whole sentence before throwing out an insult that incurred the rap of the committee chair's gavel.

"Citizens are watching arrogant Democrats decide that the rules don't apply to them," Eyman said. "The taxpayers have to follow the law, but this bill exempts you from it. The citizens have to follow the constitution, but this bill says you're above it."

Other noteworthy (though similar) Eyman quips included: "When the voters elect you, they don't do it to have you rule over them, only to represent them;" "imagine a [citizen] saying they don't want to pay taxes and waiting two years to exempt themselves;" and his closing sentiment, "to stick your finger in the eye of the voters and say they don't have the right to know what's going on is the height of arrogance."

Bob Williams, of the libertarian think tank Evergreen Freedom Foundation, followed Eyman by blaming Washington State's current economic crisis on rampant government spending.

"The problems you face are due to unrealistic levels of high state spending, not a lack of taxes," said Williams.

The final strange and noteworthy event of the hearing was a heated exchange between east King County Sen. Cheryl Pflug (R-5) and Marcus Sweester, Washington Student Association VP of Finance and a student at Bellevue College student. Sweester testified in support of the bill, saying that further cuts to higher education would have a damaging effect on Washington's neediest students. Sen. Pflug responded by grilling Sweester on his opinion about tuition increases. When Sweester responded that he was testifying on cuts, Sen. Pflug cut him off, saying, "Tuition increases ARE cuts." The gavel came down again, cutting short the exchange.
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