The Senate GOP caucus went to the nuclear level this week in its accountability agenda against the state’s executive branch.
The Republican-controlled senate passed a bill 26-23 along partisan lines that would require the attorney general’s office to review every proposed state agency regulation for its constitutionality, and would automatically kill each new executive branch regulation if the legislature does not approve it within a year.
“It’s hard to say if this bill is serious, or just trying to make a political point,” said state senator Christine Rolfes (D-23, Bainbridge Island).
State senator John Braun (R-20, Centralia) introduced this bill saying Wednesday: “It’s absolutely serious. It did not come up from the abstract. This is for a serious debate.” Braun said his bill is patterned after a law that the Colorado legislature (Republican senate, Democratic house) passed last year.
“I think this should be nominated for the best legislation in Olympia in my 17 years here,” state senator Doug Ericksen (R-42, Ferndale) said.
Environmental committee chair, and big recipient of oil industry dollars, Ericksen is a huge critic of governor Jay Inslee’s move to use existing state laws to set up regulations to put a cap on carbon emissions from Washington’s biggest smokestack industries. Some of those facilities—BP Cherry Point and ConocoPhillips oil refineries—are in Ericksen’s district.
Braun’s bill will likely die in the Democratic house. So unless the Senate GOP thinks that the house Democrats will suddenly change a four-year pattern of each chamber automatically killing each other’s pet bills, common sense says this bill is at least symbolic, if not political.
That symbolic mantra is: “Accountability.”
Republican legislators have hammered that theme relentlessly in 2016, closely accompanied by GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant’s press releases on the same subject—sometimes released within minutes of whenever the GOP legislative leadership makes the same point. Perfect example: Bryant's press release critiques of the state's health care authority and the department of corrections when the GOP fired Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson late on a Friday afternoon.
Braun said he did not introduce his bill with the GOP’s accountability political agenda in mind, citing, again, inspiration from the Colorado law. “As rolled out (this session) that was not its intent. … but it fits quite nicely (into the GOP accountability theme),” he said
On paper, this is the GOP’s biggest accountability move of the session. It would mean every new regulation made by every single state agency would have to go through a legal review to see if it is constitutional. And then the legislature would have to review every new regulation within a year, debate each new regulation, possibly rewrite some of those rules, and then vote whether to keep each one, micromanaging the executive branch with a new level of legislative oversight.
Unless one party takes control of both the senate and house this November, each new regulation would face a split legislative branch that cannot agree on much. A possible scenario is the senate GOP could easily kill every new regulation by refusing to vote on it. The GOP senate, for example, has killed every proposed Democratic tax increase and tax-break closure by the same tactic.
Other recent GOP legislative accountability moves include the fact that Republicans believe governor Jay Inslee cannot investigate a department of corrections scandal in a way that the public can trust. So, the senate judiciary committee—at least the Republican majority on it—hired its own investigator to conduct the same probe in the name of accountability. The GOP has three weeks until the end of the current session to have the judiciary committee call its own witnesses and deliver a report on the matter.
If that’s not done by March 11, the senate’s investigation will slip into limbo.
The senate Republicans also hit the accountability theme hard—along with Bryant—when they fired WSDOT head Peterson on February 5 by suddenly not confirming her appointment after three years on the job (and unanimously approving her at the committee level just a year earlier.) Despite the fact that the senate GOP could have easily accomplished this termination with advance warning that her job was in danger, the Republicans chose to do this by ambush on a Friday afternoon. It signaled that the GOP wanted shock for the sake of shock (and media hit) in pursuing its accountability agenda.
The GOP has hinted it might make some accountability moves on the Health Care Authority and its executive director Dorothy Teeter. The HCA has stumbled by getting its Medicaid budget wrong by hundreds of millions of dollars. An employee also mishandled confidential information for 91,000 Medicaid patients.
The senate Democrats argued that Braun’s bill is over-the-top—and too impractical to actually implement.
They wondered: Does every new Department of Revenue technical tax regulation have to be debated in the legislature each year? What about every new Department of Fish & Wildlife regulation? What about the Liquor & Cannabis Board’s new technical rules? Democrats painted a picture of legislators drowning in reviews of thousands of new technical rules each year, while simultaneously tackling big-picture issues.
“They’re arguing we’re not smart enough to do this. Do you think that? I don’t,” Braun said.
Ultimately, the biggest question is will all this accomplish anything beyond some gratuitous capitol dome saber-rattling in election-year, a common tactic to establish partisan memes in hopes of influencing voters.