Isn't It Weird That...

For today's installment, we've got an extraordinarily weird item from Olympia.

Washington State Labor Council lobbyist Rebecca Johnson was yanked from a panel that was scheduled to present to the commerce and labor committee by the committee chair, Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry (R-13, Moses Lake), after Holmquist Newbry found out that Johnson had a different opinion than the senator.

Holmquist Newbry—who'd organzied the public Wednesday morning committee work session on her bill that could scale back workers' comp payouts—had invited Johnson along with other stakeholders, such as business lobbyists, the Department of Labor and Industries, and the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals (BIIA), which oversees workers' comp claims and approves settlements in workers' comp cases to testify.

When Johnson showed up about 15 minutes before the session, Holmquist Newbry, she says, asked her to step out in the hall, where she asked Johnson if they were "on the same page" regarding a key aspect of the bill—whether or not workers in workers' comp cases who have legal representation still need the BIIA to sign off on their settlements. "I am not certain whether Senator Holmquist Newbry’s  behavior violates any particular Senate rule of conduct, but when viewed in a broad ethical context consistent with usual democratic practices of the public hearing process it is, I believe, abhorrent and unacceptable behavior." –Washington State Labor Council president Jeff Johnson

Johnson's position, as she told Holmquist Newbry, was that the BIIA did need to approve those settlements. Holmquist Newbry's position is that only unrepresented workers need the BIIA's stamp of approval for settlements.

According to Johnson, Holmquist Newbry then told her she didn't want that point of view in the public record, and told Johnson she was taking her off the panel. "I was shocked," Johnson says. She says Holmquist Newbry apologized for making her get up so early to come down to the 9am session. Johnson says she told Holmquist Newbry she wasn't leaving and would stay at the session to answer any questions.

Johnson immediately relayed what had happened to some of her Democratic allies on the committee, and during the panel discusssion Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33, Des Moines) made a point of asking why Johnson wasn't on the panel, noting that Johnson's name was on the printed agenda. Holmquist Newbry told Keiser she was looking at an old version of the agenda.

We have a message in to Sen. Holmquist Newbry.

Ready? That's not the weird part. I mean, it's startling, but here's the weirdness.

Democratic minority leader Sen. Ed Murray (D-43, Capitol Hill) sent a letter to Majority Coalition Caucus leader Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Medina) complaining about Holmquist Newbry's decision to bar Johnson from speaking.

After describing Holmquist Newbry's actions that morning (and doing a bit of Democratic Party editorializing on workers' comp, Murray makes a perfectly legit point:

In a broader sense, however, Sen. Holmquist Newbry's actions seriously undercut the claims you have made to appear bipartisan. Her message—support me or don't get heard—is damaging to the Senate, destructive to our process, and insulting to the people who elected us. It's one thing to prohibit the Democratic minority from being able to vote on important bipartisan measures we support, but at least we still get to speak. Silencing one's opponents is certainly an effective way to create a biased record, and Sen. Holmquist Newbry's technique is an unmistakable step in that direction.

This isn't a new a problem. The House Rules prohibit chairs from conducting public hearings in a manner that fails to give voice to both sides. We don't have such a rule, but I am ready to offer one, and do not believe that many would have the poor judgment to vote against it.

Okay, ready for bizarre? Check out Sen. Tom's non sequitur response, in which he starts talking about a conservative bill that would require young women to notify their parents before getting an abortion (it got a hearing this session, but went nowhere).

Thank you so much for your letter dated April 25th, regarding the work session that was held on April 24thby Senator Janéa Holmquist Newbry, the Chair of the Commerce and Labor Committee. I’m sorry to hear that you feel the meeting was not conducted in a fair and unbiased manner.

You mentioned in your letter that the House has rules prohibiting chairs from conducting public hearings in a manner that fails to voice both sides. I’ve said all session long that I think one of the problems in politics today is that we try to control the message far more than we should, instead of having the open, unvarnished dialog that is needed on not only issues that the majority supports, but also on issues that are important to significant portions of our constituencies. This is why even though I adamantly oppose the parental notification law; I still think it’s a good thing to have a good open debate on these types of issues, so that both sides can present their best case.

I look forward to working with you in making sure the Senate operates in as open, transparent, and constructive manner as possible.

Here are links to PDFs of both letters. Additionally, here's a letter Washington State Labor Council president Jeff Johnson sent to Lt. Gov. Brad Owen about the incident yesterday.

Dear Lieutenant Governor Owen:
 
On behalf of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, and our affiliated unions I would like to bring to your attention an egregious action taken by the Committee Chair of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, Janea Holmquist Newbry.

After explaining Holmquist Newbry's actions, Johnson continued: 

Upon hearing this, Chair Holmquist Newbry said that she did not think she wanted that information on the record and “disinvited” Rebecca from participating in the work session.

I am not certain whether Senator Holmquist Newbry’s  behavior violates any particular Senate rule of conduct, but when viewed in a broad ethical context consistent with usual democratic practices of the public hearing process it is, I believe, abhorrent and unacceptable behavior. Legislative work sessions and hearings are designed to bring out a variety of opinions and views so as to provide legislators with a basis for making informed decisions. “Disinviting” someone to speak based on the fact that they will present a view contrary to the Chair’s view hardly squares with our democratic process and legislative historical practices. I am shocked by such a blatant effort to conceal from the public record the opinions of an invited guest at a public work session.

I would respectfully ask you to investigate this matter and to expeditiously take any and all appropriate actions.

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