This Washington

BUDGET COUP UPDATE: GOP Seizes Control of Senate, Passes Their Own Budget, Special Session Looms

By Josh Feit March 2, 2012


Republican budget leader Sen. Joe Zarelli (R-18, Ridgefield) passed his budget shortly after midnight last night, 25-24, with three Democrats joining all 22 Republicans in an impressively disciplined, well-calibrated series of parliamentary votes that began late Friday afternoon as the GOP wrested control from the Democratic majority.

Democratic Sens. Jim Kastama (D-25, Puyallup) and Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue), both members of the ad hoc, swing-vote conservative Democratic caucus known as the Roadkill Caucus, along with Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35, Potlatch), the "Ben Nelson" of Washington State, who rarely votes with the Democrats anyway, gave Zarelli and the GOP the votes they needed.

Zarelli said it was necessary to pass his budget rather than Democratic budget leader Sen Ed Murray's (D-43, Seattle) own budget proposal because Murray's did not have the votes to begin with.

“If the Legislature is to have any chance of adjourning March 8 the Senate needed to reach agreement on a budget as soon as possible," Zarelli said in a statement. "Because we still have to negotiate with the House of Representatives. There was no assurance that the Senate majority party would have enough votes for its plan; in my mind, bringing an alternative forward became the responsible thing to do.”

Zarelli added: "Compared to ... the proposal from the Senate Democrats, this budget accomplishes more in terms of government reform and support for what I see as the core priorities of government."

A side-by-side comparison of Zarelli and Murray's budget by non-partisan senate staff shows that Zarelli's budget makes deeper cuts: $88 million more in cuts to state employees; $82 million more in cuts to K-12 education and $30 million more in cuts to higher ed (the Democrats made no cuts to education, and in fact, added $40 million to K-12); $57 million more in cuts to health care, including a $40 million cut to the Disability Lifeline; $224 million more in cuts to human services, including a dramatic $202 million cut to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program; and $67 million more in cuts to the environment.[pullquote]A side-by-side comparison of Zarelli and Murray's budget by non-partisan senate staff shows that Zarelli's budget makes deeper cuts.[/pullquote]

The Republicans provide more in long-term care; the Democratic budget cuts $22 million more.

Murray told PubliCola Zarelli's budget was "a war on the poor, a war on poor children."

The GOP budget and the side-by-side comparison is here.

The Democrats decried the Republican budget for making harsher cuts to health, social services, and kids than their proposal—and also denounced the hostile approach.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Lisa Brown (D-3, Spokane) and senate ways and means chair Murray issued a joint statement: “Skipping a pension payment, gutting state services and subverting the public process is not how you write a budget. Ignoring the stories of the people who spent 12 hours in committee hearings talking about how their lives would be changed by the budget cuts we faced, the people who would lose a quality education, the people who feared they would become homeless – disregarding our citizens – that is not how you write a responsible budget.”

Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44, Lake Stevens)—a leader of the Roadkill Caucus (whom PubliCola spotlighted yesterday morning after we first reported that a Republican coup involving the Roadkill Caucus was afoot)—voted against the Republican's budget mutiny; so did other Roadkillers, such as Sens. Brian Hatfield, Paull Shin, and Mary Margaret Haugen.

Hobbs said last night:
The Roadkill caucus is a group of like-minded individuals, but we are still individuals. I’m disappointed with the decision of Sens. Kastama and Tom to side with the minority party to put forth a budget that did not have the opportunity to be heard in committee, commented on by the public or even read by the very members of the Senate who were asked to vote on the bill.

Until Friday afternoon, myself and members of the moderate Democrats were working in good faith with leadership in the Senate, House of Representatives and Republicans to advance several pieces of legislation that would have advanced vital reforms to state government.

This move is the antithesis of transparency, respect and fairness – values which members of the moderate Democratic caucus hold dear.

The opportunity to achieve reforms still exists. Good legislation is still out there, but we must put aside our differences in order to advance it.

7 PM BUDGET COUP UPDATE: GOP Unveils Alternative Budget, Set to Pass it Tonight, Special Session Looms:

• The Democrats are desperately trying to find one of the three members of their caucus who broke ranks, Sen. Rodney Tom, Tim Sheldon, or Jim Kastama—who's running for secretary of state as a Democrat, by the way—to vote with them as the parade of the GOP parliamentary gambits keeps going the Republicans way.

• The current gambit, however, is coming from the Democrats: They're trying to filibuster by having the whole bill—all 235 pages—read aloud. And it looks like that the Democrats may win this point. Republican Benton tried to challenge the motion by suspending the rule to allow that, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who's presiding over the show, said he'd done some research and it would take a two thirds vote to suspend the rule. The motion to suspend failed.

•And ... oh my ... the clerk is now reading the whole bill.

• Sen. Benton points out that while the Democrats asked to have the bill read, they've all left the chamber. He suggests that if they're actually not interested in hearing the bill, that the senate "get on with its business."

• Owen tells Benton that the audio is carried throughout the building, so there's no way to say for sure that the Democrats aren't listening.

• The clerk continues reading.

• At 5:45 pm,  the clerk is now on page six---the budget for the state court of appeals. 229 pages to go.

• Socially liberal Republican Steve Litzow (R-41, Mercer), voted against the reproductive parity act (requiring insurers that cover maternity care to also cover abortions, with an exemption for religious employers), surprising reproductive rights advocates who counted him as a safe "yes" vote. Litzow, elected in 2010, serves on the board of NARAL … for now.

The bill could still be resurrected later in the session (if it’s deemed not “necessary to implement the budget,” since today’s cutoff is only for budget bills) or in a special session, if today’s budget circus forces one.

• Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Bellevue), one of the three Democrats to break ranks (Tom, by the way, was elected as a Republican in 2002, but switched parties in 2006), issued the following statement:
Today I stood with a bipartisan group of legislators to support an operating budget and a series of government reforms that will put our state on a strong fiscal footing.

Since before this legislative session began, the message from my constituents has been loud and clear. Another budget that is unsustainable, relies upon accounting gimmicks and sets our state up for a perennial deficit is simply unacceptable.

If we ever want to get ahead of our budget crises, our state needs wholesale government reform and a budget that reflects our commitment to sustainable governing.

This year, I introduced several reform proposals aimed at bending our state’s cost curve, including efforts to shore up our state’s pension system. I also made my support clear regarding proposals to lower our state debt limit and require that our state balance our budgets with long-term sustainability in mind. Each of these proposals represent critical tools in achieving a sustainable budget that will restore the public’s confidence in our state’s fiscal outlook.

Unfortunately, with one week left in the regular session, it became clear that a true commitment to a sustainable budget and wholesale government reform had failed to emerge in the Legislature.

My commitment to my constituents and to sound policy will always override my commitment to the party hierarchy. I am proud of the work we have done today on behalf of the citizens of Washington. It is my hope that today’s actions will show the public that the will within the Legislature to budget sustainably does indeed exist.

• It's 6:25 pm and the clerk is on page 22 (213 pages to go); the clerk is reading the section about "Innovative research teams, also know entrepreneurial STARS."

• FYI, the purpose of this Democratic stalling tactic—Sen. Tracey Eide (D-30,Federal Way), the majority floor leader, called for the full reading, by the way—is simply a ploy to give the Democrats the opportunity to try and either A) negotiate with the Republicans to call off the coup or B) convince either Democratic Sen. Kastama, Sheldon, or Tom stop voting with the Republicans tonight.

• The clerks were cut off at 6:44 PM and the legislators are back on the floor.

• Both Democratic floor leader Sen. Eide and budget leader Sen. Murray spoke.

Eide: "I'm sorry that it came to this, but I truly believe that we should have had the opportunity to go at ease which we were denied. This is an extremely complex issue. The budget is the reason why we are here this touches every single Washingtonian, and it is something that we do not take lightly. There is a process and there is a procedure, and I have always always, Mr. President, given the other side time. I have given them dinner breaks, lunch breaks. I feel I have done quite a bit and this is [what] I get in return."

Murray: "I think that what this regrettable exercise illustrated is how complex the budget is. It gives you just  little window into how much time members, the stakeholders, and the public spend in preparation and writing the budget—a process that was short-circuited tonight."

Both senators also thanked the staff, to applause, for reading the budget out loud.

• Owen suspended the reading and now the senate is at ease as both sides plot strategy.

• The Republicans have unveiled the highlights of their budget proposal, which comes with a balanced budget amendment, a debt limit amendment, smaller pension benefits for new state employees, deep cuts in the Disability Lifeline, and the elimination of the state food assistance program.

It fully funds the Basic Health Plan.

• Sen. Murray calls it "a war on poor children" and points out that it cuts education. (His budget made no cuts to education.) Zarelli's plan cuts $43.9 million from K-12 and  $30.4 million from higher education.

The Democrats plan to make dramatic speeches on the floor against the budget, but they are outnumbered and Murray says "they'll ram it down our throats tonight."

The problem for the Republican budget, though, is they will not be able to pass it in the house. "That's a problem, isn't it," Murray said. "We're going into special session."


In a dramatic parliamentary play known as the 9th order, the minority Republicans, using extra votes from conservative Democrats, commandeered the state senate floor to bring a batch of budget bills to the floor in an attempt to pass their own budget instead of  waiting for pending negotiations over the official senate budget proposal from ways and means chair Sen. Ed Murray (D-43, Seattle).

Raising the obvious objection, Democrats protested that the GOP ambush violated the spirit of public process. "In December, we heard from the public hours and hours of testimony that has not had the chance to be reflected in the proposals that are before us," Murray said today.

Yesterday, we reported Murray's prediction that the Republicans would try to muscle through their own budget. Three Democrats, Tim Sheldon (D-35), Rodney Tom (D-48), and Jim Kastama (D-25) broke ranks to vote with the Republicans to hijack the Democrats' budget proposal.

The Democrats tried to add the Reproductive Parity Act—a pro choice bill—onto the package proposed by Sen. Don Benton (R-17). The Democratic play lost with, oddly, pro-choice Republican Steve Litzow (D-41, Mercer Island) voting against the effort. Litzow is a fiscal conservative, and had apparently decided the GOP budget play was too important to foil by forcing Republicans to add a pro-choice bill to their package. Litzow also voted against a separate proposal to consider the act on its own.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Lisa Brown (D-3, Spokane), her voice rising in anger, trashed the GOP play for abandoning the public process. Brown said:
There hasn't been a hearing on it. We haven't had an opportunity to draw amendments to, it so the process that we have been developing in working together in particular last year and this year in which we have deferred to each other  … that process is being completely ignored here. If we are not allowed to even see [the bill], to deliberate on it, to share with our constituents and our public, the effects on them, and I can only speculate what they might be ... Mr. president, because we haven't seen it and every member of this floor deserves the opportunity for real process.

A budget ... would have been brought forward tomorrow [Sen. Murray's budget] in the ways and means committee … [it] would have been subject to any number of amendments … could have come forward. at this time there is no reason for us to consider this bill unless we don't want people to know what's in it. unless we don't want members of this body to know what they're voting on and for their constituents to be able to ask why.

Sen. Murray agreed with Brown, stressing the lack of bipartisanship: "This is the least transparent process i have seen in my 17 years in the legislature," he said, "this is a huge step backwards for parliamentary process and for this body transparency is being tossed out the window along with any hope for bipartisanship."

Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36, Seattle) seconded Murray's concern about the lack of bipartisanship: "I believe what is happening here today is going to damage our state legislature as much as what has been happening with the US congress and I think it's distasteful."

However, Republian Sen. Cheryl Pflug (R-5)—recently allied with the Democrats on gay marriage and Obama's health care plan—turned the liberal Democrats' point about bipartisanship on its head, pointing out that Murray's budget was a strictly Democratic bill, while the Republicans evidently had the bipartisan (and majority of votes) to pass their budget.

Referring to the fact that no Republicans had signed off on Murray's budget, she said: "We have a partisan system [that includes] the ability of a bipartisan majority to move around a partisan blockade … to bring forward bills that a majority of the body wants to consider."
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