Senate Democrats’ I-1351 gambit: lots of excuses

In an apparent fit of pique, Senate Democrats upended the legislature’s budget deal in a ridiculous way. Their unnecessary move quickly dissipated the good spirit that prevailed under the capitol dome after Gov. Inslee signed the state budget shortly before midnight on Tuesday night.

The unexpected fight was over suspending Initiative 1351, the class size initiative voters narrowly passed last fall, for four years. As the Seattle Times noted, “All along, legislators from both parties have said that I-1351, estimated to cost $5 billion through 2019, is too expensive to fund.”

Everyone watching the budget negotiations was aware that funding for I-1351 was not included. Not one of the proposed budgets – not Inslee’s, not the Senate Republicans’, not the House Democrats’ – funded the initiative’s costs.

Everyone in the capitol understood that the budget deal involved suspending I-1351. That includes the many Senate Democrats who voted for the bipartisan operating budget, which passed 38-10 in the Senate.

Excuses, not reasons
Listening to their statements during the floor debate and after, the Senate Democrats who gummed up the budget deal offered up a lot more excuses than reasons.

  • The “not consulted” excuse. Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island) told Crosscut that Senate Democrats were aware of the budget deal details but weren’t involved in negotiating them, and so “felt ambushed with last-minute bills”.

In that same Crosscut article, Sen. David Frockt’s (D-Seattle) position was summed up this way:

He argued that the House and Senate leaders never pondered how to implement I-1351 and its $2 billion biennial price during the 105-day regular session or during the subsequent two special sessions.

 “It was just assumed we wouldn’t do it.”

Sen. Jim Hargrove (D-Hoquiam), one of the few Democrats to vote for suspension, pointed out during floor debate that, despite all this talk about “surprises,” not one budget included I-1351 funding and not one of the protesting senators wrote so much as a study bill on what to do about the initiative.

  • The “everything went haywire” excuse. So said Sen. Ranker, who the Times described as “one of the budget negotiators” (wait, I thought Senate Democrats weren’t included in budget negotiations, according to them). Apparently the two sides just couldn’t quite communicate about this incredibly clear and obvious issue. “Both sides were tired, and both were melting down,” Ranker said.
  • The “let’s slow down and take our time” excuse. That’s one option offered up by House Democrats, who had already voted to suspend I-1351, in the wake of this debacle. House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan (D-Covington) told the News Tribune, “There are ways you could deal with it until [January 2016].” Of course, the budget would be out of balance by $2 billion until then, which is illegal but “there aren’t really any concrete consequences to violating that part of the law”.

Of course, when the Legislature was considering sending I-1351 back to the voters with a tax attached, Sullivan called that a delay and a bad idea. “Sending it to voters is irresponsible, and puts us in a position that, we may be back in December in special session having to address,” he said. Now that the budget is out of balance in actuality and not just theoretically, Sullivan seems to think there’s all the time in the world to deal with the problem.

That’s just nutty – or it’s just hypocritical.

The Senate Democrats’ price to end the issue is apparently HB 2214, a bill that “makes some changes to high school student assessments and if approved would help about 2,000 Washington students at risk for not graduating high school after failing a required biology exam.”

The News Tribune, in a blistering editorial, asks the question:

Were the Senate Democrats actually bent on reviving I-1351? Or were they so committed to watering down Washington’s graduation standards that they’d sabotage hard-won budget deals negotiated by fellow Democrats?

Neither possibility speaks well of their judgment — or capacity to govern.

Sen. Andy Hill (R-Redmond), the Republicans’ budget writer, thinks a compromise can be made on the matter. If not, there’s still room for six more 30-day special sessions this year.
-Rob McKenna

The following two tabs change content below.
Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.