Senate Majority Coalition Blasts Special Session Plans, Says Possible Break Might be Used for Political Fund-Raising

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, speaks at a Thursday-afternoon news conference. He is flanked by Sens. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, Pam Roach, R-Auburn, Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, and John Smith, R-Colville.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, speaks at a Thursday-afternoon news conference. He is flanked by Sens. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, Pam Roach, R-Auburn, Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, and John Smith, R-Colville.

OLYMPIA, April 26.—Members of the Senate Majority Coalition staged a pre-emptive strike on Gov. Jay Inslee Thursday, blasting plans for a layoff between the regular session and an all-but-certain special session – even before anything has been announced.

If Inslee sends lawmakers home Sunday night for any length of time at all, lawmakers will seize the opportunity to start raising money for political campaigns, they said. “Frankly, I smell a rat,” said state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch.

Their news conference underscored a point that has become glaringly obvious at the statehouse over the last week or so – that lawmakers certainly will not finish their business by Sunday at midnight, the final day of their 105-day regular session. About all that remains to be done is for the governor to make a formal announcement of when the overtime session will begin. And there certainly is truth to the argument that any layoff will present an opportunity for lawmakers to raise money for political campaigns. An initiative approved by Washington voters in 1991 forbids legislators and statewide elected officials from raising money while the Legislature is in session.

So members of the Republican-leaning majority coalition said the Democratic governor has plenty of political motivation to call a time-out at a point when a few days’ work might finish the job. Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray is running for mayor of Seattle and Senate appointee Nathan Schlicher, D-Gig Harbor, needs to get started raising money for a fall campaign. But there is one big irony. One of the Legislature’s four political caucuses has already scheduled a fund-raiser immediately after the session ends, for 9 a.m. Monday morning: The Senate Republican Caucus.

The fact left Democrats chortling and the governor’s office steaming. “It is out of bounds for them to say that,” said David Postman, communications director for Gov. Jay Inslee. “They are questioning the motivations of people they claim to be negotiating with in good faith.” And besides, no decision has been made.

A Most Political Accusation

At Thursday’s news conference, members of the Majority Coalition Caucus said the governor should call lawmakers back into session at 12 noon Monday, to keep up the pressure for a budget deal. They said the Senate already has done its part of the job – passing a budget and all of the bills necessary to implement it, as well as a passel of policy measures they say they want to see included in any session-ending deal. They touted their no-tax budget, said the House and the governor are flouting the will of the people by demanding more than $1 billion in new taxes, and said Inslee has made resolution even more difficult by insisting on passage of a number of highly partisan policy bills before lawmakers go home. And they won’t be adjourning for the weekend, as many had expected. Instead the 49 members of the Senate will remain at their desks all Saturday and Sunday – just to show they aren’t the ones to blame for holding up the process.

“We are committed to stay here until the end of the session, so we will be working this weekend, all the way through, available to meet with Speaker [Frank] Chopp and Rep. [Ross] Hunter and others to complete our business,” said state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, the deputy majority leader. “We wanted to make sure the public knew and the press knew that we have kept our promise, completed our business and passed serious reform bills and serious budget bills.”

The Senate announcement raises the possibility that senators will be playing pinochle at their desks this weekend for lack of anything else to do. But the political red meat of the message came with the remarks from Sheldon, who is one of two Democrats who turned the Senate upside down this year with their decision to caucus with Republicans and establish a 25-member working majority. Sheldon said he suspects a rather seamy bit of scheduling is afoot, with politics the primary consideration.

“There are rumors that a special session might be called in two or three weeks, and really I have got to say frankly, I smell a rat. I think it is politics obviously that is involved. The individuals that are running for other offices, mayor of Seattle and for Senate as well, they need to raise money, and the idea would be that they could adjourn. Of course, we can’t raise money while we are in session. And that is upsetting to me, and I think it should be upsetting if that is the scenario that is followed.

“And I think it should be just as upsetting to the average citizen of Washington, because we feel that we have been sent here to do a job, and we have done that job. We have completed those bills to implement a budget. We have passed a transportation and an operating budget. Now is the time to get this thing signed and to work together, sit down together and have the governor call us together in the same room and sit eyeball to eyeball and work these differences out so we can all go home and make Washington work for everybody.”

Goes Both Ways

It’s one of those age-old arguments that comes whenever the Washington Legislature nears the end of its regular session and lawmakers concede that they can’t get the job done in the allotted time — 105 days in an odd-numbered budget-writing year, 60 days in an even-numbered year. Because special sessions occur more often than not, it is an argument familiar to anyone who has been at the statehouse more than a year or two. Should lawmakers go home for a “cooling-off period” while budget negotiators meet behind closed doors? Or should they remain at their desks, doing nothing, drumming their fingers furiously and reading the angry editorials in their hometown newspapers about lawmakers who collect a total of $18,000 per-diem pay for every day of overtime?

While there’s no guarantee lawmakers would do a lick of work during a “cooling-off period” — and history provides many examples where they haven’t — the ability to fund-raise is one advantage. And it goes both ways. Schlicher might need to raise money for his 26th District race. But so does state Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, his Republican challenger – making things even. It might make more of a difference for Senate Democratic Leader Ed Murray: Filing begins May 1 for mayor, and there appears to be a flock of candidates who won’t be at that same fund-raising disadvantage.

Murray scoffs at the idea that his fund-raising needs will have anything to do with the scheduling of a special session. Does the governor’s office really care about the mayor’s race? “You know, I don’t think anyone in this place is making the decision based on me running for mayor,” he says. “I don’t think Jay in his shop is. I don’t think Frank [Chopp] in his shop is. …When I decided to stay in the Legislature this year, I knew this was a possibility. So I’m fully comfortable with it.”

Murray says he would rather see lawmakers go home while the negotiators work on the budget – not because of fund-raising opportunities, but because it’s a way to duck all those nasty editorials.

And then you have to consider that Republican fund-raiser.

Republican Fund-Raiser Scheduled Monday

It might seem a little odd that the Majority Coalition would blast the political motivations behind a possible layoff – when the Senate Republican Caucus Campaign Committee is planning a fund-raiser at the first possible opportunity. The fund-raiser is set for a home near the Capitol, and invitations went out to the lobbying community late this week. It’s far from a secret. Every Democrat at the Capitol appears to know about it, and it is the first thing many mentioned when told about the Majority Coalition news conference late Thursday afternoon – in most cases, with a bit of laughter.

Benton said there is no contradiction. He said the Senate Republican Caucus has traditionally held a fund-raiser the morning after a regular session adjourns, to catch the lobbyists who surely will be streaming out of town later in the afternoon. The fund-raiser breaks no rules — caucus campaign committees are allowed to raise money at any time, with one caveat. If lawmakers are called back into session Monday before 9 a.m., according to rules developed by the state Public Disclosure Commission, money would have to be placed in a separate account for general party-building purposes and cannot be used for specific candidates. Benton said the event was planned well in advance, and if the Legislature had been diligent about its work, there would be no issue at all. “We planned on keeping our word and finishing in 105 days,” he said.

It brought a furious response from Postman.  “That lays bare the truth – there is one group here that has got politics on the calendar, and for them to allege what they alleged is outrageous,” he said. “They know better.”