Democrats in Olympia must not sweep aside the state constitution and the rule of law in their quest to take advantage of some Republican legislators’ Trump-adminstration appointments to pass a bill to authorize a continuation of expiring local school levies
YOU might get the idea, from press accounts of the state Legislature last week, that the state Senate has become a circus. Not quite true, but we face the troubling prospect that our Democratic colleagues may try to take advantage of a temporary vacancy to gain the upper hand in the state Senate — and flout the state constitution in the process.
I hope it doesn’t come to that. The people of Washington at the very least expect that we take our jobs seriously, that we perform our duties in an orderly fashion, and that we try not to behave like schoolchildren when a substitute takes over the class.
Right now, my caucus, the Senate Majority Coalition, holds 25 seats in the state Senate — a narrow one-vote majority over the Senate Democratic Caucus, which has 24.
But last week, one of our members, Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, resigned to take a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Another member, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, has taken a temporary transition-team position at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C., though he continues to serve in the Senate.
With one seat vacant at least until Wednesday, and another member temporarily gone, our Democratic colleagues thought this was a chance to “run the table.” On Friday, they held the Senate in session for hours in an attempt to gain control of the floor — the goal being to pass a bill to authorize a continuation of expiring local school levies. This debate continues this week.
Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, told reporters this temporary situation was a golden opportunity to pass legislation her caucus cannot do by ordinary means. She insisted that if the situation were reversed, we would “be doing the exact same thing.”
I think not. On our side of the aisle, there is great concern that we adhere to the state constitution and the rule of law.
The constitution doesn’t allow a minority party to pass a bill on its own. It says passage requires a majority vote of the entire body — meaning a majority of members, not just those who happen to be on the floor at the time. In the Senate, passage requires 25 votes.
To get that 25th vote, the Democrats are counting on Cyrus Habib, the newly elected lieutenant governor. As presiding officer of the Senate, the lieutenant governor is allowed to cast a tiebreaking vote “in the case of an equal division of the Senate.” Habib, a former senator, made many troubling statements during the campaign, about his willingness to put his thumb on the scales for his fellow Democrats — though we are relieved he adhered to rule and precedent Friday, his first major debate.
No one disputes Habib’s authority to break ties on procedural votes, but the constitution presents a strict requirement for final passage of a bill. Article 2, Section 22 tells us “no bill shall become a law unless on its final passage … a majority of the members elected to each house be recorded thereon as voting in its favor.”
Habib isn’t a member of the Senate. The constitution clearly states that he is an executive-branch officer. Meaning he can’t be the 25th vote on final passage.
Will Habib cast a vote anyway? It’s happened before. Former Lt. Gov. Brad Owen cast a tiebreaking vote in 2009 for a tax bill, and many of us objected. Owen maintained that in some fuzzy, quasi-legal way not mentioned in the constitution, he is a member of the Senate at the same time he is an executive officer. No one took the matter to court at the time. But any bill passed in an unconstitutional fashion most likely will end up in court and be subject to lengthy litigation.
Honestly, we can envision an endless stream of furious parliamentary maneuvers until the public’s eyes glaze over and people decide this Senate fight is no more than a playground squabble.
The biggest question is why anyone thinks this is a good idea.
This kind of hyper-partisanship serves no good purpose now that an education plan has been introduced in the Senate. It’s going to take both parties, working together, to resolve the financial and educational problems we face this session.
Our Democratic colleagues apparently want to make the point that the Senate is in disarray. Yet the only way the Senate descends into chaos is if they force it. If they wish to put the Senate in a poor light and bring public disrespect upon the institution, the sad thing is they may succeed.