In state Senate, Republicans put new muscle behind old pursuits
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — During their first three weeks in power, Senate Republicans have introduced bills to require parental notification for abortions, allow ranchers to kill wolves and let people ride motorcycles without a helmet.
Also on the list: plans to revamp workers’ compensation benefits, repeal the state’s family leave act and assign A-F grades to public schools. There’s also talk of dumping the state employee pension system in favor of a less-expensive, 401(k)-type plan.
Much of this reflects suppressed energy. Republicans sat on the sidelines for eight years venting steam while Democrats ran the show. Now is their chance to bring forward bills that previously died quicker than the printer could spit them out.
“We’ve had Seattle-centric dominance and far-left dominance of the Legislature, and these ideas were just killed on the outset,” said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, the deputy Senate Republican leader.
Yet there’s also risk of going too far to the right and portraying the Republican Party as out of step with voters in the central Puget Sound region — voters the GOP needs if it wants to control the Legislature.
“In both houses, Republicans are now within striking distance of getting majorities, but the districts they still have to win are the most moderate” suburban districts, said Chris Vance, a former state GOP chairman. “To win those districts you’ve got to ... show you’re not stereotypical Republicans.”
As it is, Republicans were only able to wrest control of the state Senate from Democrats because Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, crossed party lines to caucus with the GOP.
Democrats hold a 55-43 majority in the House and would have a 26-23 majority in the Senate, had Tom and Sheldon not switched caucuses.
Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray, while disappointed not to be in the majority, doesn’t seem particularly worried about the Republican measures. He contends the GOP is digging itself into a political hole. In fact, his caucus is maneuvering to schedule floor votes on GOP proposals when they’ll get the most media coverage.
“In my mind, it’s a fairly far-right agenda,” Murray said. “Their agenda is out of the mainstream of Washington. On choice alone, they are simply not where Washington voters are.”
Murray was referring to a Benton-sponsored measure requiring parents to be notified before girls under age 18 can get an abortion.
The bill originally included provisions to repeal state law allowing abortion. But Benton said that was a “drafting error” and later submitted a version that removed the language.
Although 17 members of the GOP-led Senate caucus have signed onto the bill, not everyone is on board.
Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, supports abortion rights and is co-sponsoring legislation this session to require insurance companies to cover the procedure.
Asked if he was concerned that bills like the parental-notification measure were sending out the wrong message about his caucus and its objectives, Litzow shrugged.
“You have a 25-member caucus. You have wide views. Every senator is doing what they believe is right for their district,” he said. “We haven’t seen anything come out of committee. When they come out of committee, then we’ll pause.”
Circumspect for now
There’s no guarantee any of the GOP measures will get far, even if they pass the Senate. The state House has a strong Democratic majority that’s taken a dim view in the past of many ideas the GOP is putting forward. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee is an unknown factor at this point.
House Democrats are being circumspect for now.
“We’re going to focus on our agenda, and we’ll wait to see what bills come over. At this point, it’s too early to speculate,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.
Senate Republicans hope their long-suppressed ideas for change will resonate with voters and persuade Democrats to put their proposals into law.
“When they get a good airing, the public is going to embrace a lot of these ideas,” said Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
Plus there’s old-fashioned politics. The GOP-led caucus in the Senate isn’t the only one looking for a dance partner.
Democrats “are in the same boat. If they want some of their stuff passed, they have to work with us,” said Tom, who was appointed Senate majority leader after he agreed to caucus with the Republicans.
Majority leaders in the Senate have indicated that not all of their bills are created equal. The Republican caucus, for example, has downplayed Benton’s parental-notification measure.
“We are focused on jobs, education and the budget. We will not divide our caucus on issues that are going to be divisive because we want to make sure we’re focused on issues that matter to the people of Washington state,” Tom said when asked about the abortion bill.
Legislation with the highest priority, Tom and other members of his caucus said, deals with issues such as reducing the cost of workers’ compensation and retooling the state’s K-12 system.
One measure, for instance, plows into the controversial subject of letting workers settle compensation claims for a lump-sum amount rather than pursuing a lifetime disability pension or other benefits.
The topic bogged down the Legislature for weeks in 2011 until a compromise was reached, and passed into law, that allowed the option of settlements for workers age 55 and older, phasing in workers age 50 and older by 2016.
The new Senate GOP proposal, Senate Bill 5127, would eliminate the age restriction. Labor has fought this issue in the past, arguing that workers going through trauma aren’t in a good position to negotiate a lump-sum payment.
“You want them to heal up and give them training and get them back into the work force. You don’t want to trick them or play to where they are weak so that they settle for pennies on the dollar,” said Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council.
The measure is one of several bills Republicans say are designed to give injured workers more options and reduce overall workers’ compensation costs.
As for other bills, like the ones sponsored by Benton on abortion and on riding motorcycles without a helmet, “members are free to introduce anything they want,” Schoesler said. “But it still boils down to whether it gets out of committee and whether it has 25 votes on the floor.”
Benton, who has introduced roughly 50 bills so far this session compared with 11 last year, said he’s happy his measures are even getting a hearing.
“I know that all the bills you introduce aren’t going to pass,” he said. “There are many more ways to kill it than there are to pass it.”
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org