UPDATE: Partisan maneuvers stall UI rate-cut vote

The OlympianFebruary 2, 2011 

Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate offered a new twist today on what it means to be accountable and transparent. They held a roll call vote – on whether to adjourn.

That's where a dispute over unemployment benefits ended up. Some lawmakers and Senate staffers said they could not remember having a roll call on what normally is a trivial action to quit work.

Of course, it wasn't quite that simple. The maneuver was part of the larger, heavily politicized fight that has emerged this session over unemployment benefits – and how to restructure them and for whose benefit.

In this case the argument was over how many elements to put into Senate Bill 5135, which promises to spare many employers from rate spikes of up to 36 percent this year. Gov. Chris Gregoire says she needs the bill on her desk by Feb. 8 to sign.

About $303 million is at stake over the next two years. The higher UI rates are triggered by high jobless claims history during the recession, but their effects are not distributed evenly on employers.

Triggering today's fight was Senate Democrats’ move in committee to drop an element of the bill – the extension of federally funded unemployment benefits for those who have exhausted their first 26 weeks of benefits. The state is paying extended benefits to more than 28,000 claimants at this time.

Minority Republicans support the extension, and Senate Democratic Leader Lisa Brown said her caucus is committed to taking up the benefits extension later when the Democrats address other UI issues.

But Republicans weren't having it. They believed Brown's move was a ploy letting the majority party later combine the popular benefits extension with proposals that labor wants and business does not. These include a proposal to take extra money from the state UI fund to pay for additional worker retraining and also to increase UI benefits for jobless families that have child dependents.

So, Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville asked to reconsider the committee vote that had stripped out the UI benefits extension.

The reconsideration motion attracted six Democratic votes and passed by a narrow 26-21 margin with one member excused and one seat vacant. The six Democrats: Brian Hatfield of Raymond; Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens; Jim Kastama of Puyallup; Craig Pridemore of Vancouver; Tim Sheldon of Potlatch; and Rodney Tom of Medina. UPDATE: Adds Sen. Tom to list of cross-over votes.

After winning that point, Schoesler tried to bring the unmodified version of the bill to the floor. But Senate Democratic Floor Leader Tracey Eide, D-Redondo, quickly moved to adjourn. The motion to adjourn trumped the motion to vote on the bill, but not to be outmaneuvered, Schoesler made the rare request for a roll call vote on adjournment.

Enough members stood to support the request.

The verdict: Democrats prevailed on a 25-21 vote after Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island appeared to switch her vote to yes at the last minute. Kastama and Sheldon were the only Democrats against adjournment.

So we all stay tuned. Business and labor groups have testified in favor or the rate changes, and both sides see a lot riding on its eventual passage – and on the passage of extended benefits. The Association of Washington Business holds its yearly legislative conference in Olympia on Thursday and Friday.

Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, said the measure could come Thursday at the soonest. In the House, Republicans are getting anxious.

"Here we go again, the ongoing UI wars," Rep. Cary Condotta, R-Wenatchee, said after learning of the Senate vote. Condotta said the Senate needs to vote quickly to allow a House committee hearing and then a floor vote in time to meet the governor's deadline.

UPDATE on the original 5:44 p.m. post from yesterday: Dave Groves of the Washington State Labor Council weighed in this morning, saying that "the whole point of the Republican/6 Dem maneuver to defy the Majority Leader yesterday was to avoid passage of EITHER the governor's training benefit OR the children's benefit supported by our coalition (which is not just labor, by the way)." [ Go here for Groves' link to the list of United for Washington Families coalition members that support the labor-led proposals on UI.]

Groves said that the GOP position is ideological and meant to avoid a second UI bill that could provide both benefit increases and training. The latter are needed in his words to “balance” the rate relief for businesses by helping workers, too. He said there is wide support for the insurance-tax break for businesses and that the bill was on its way to passage in time for Gregoire’s deadline, and he said the GOP “gambit” puts that in jeopardy. In an email, he added:

"We supported the bill with a one-year tax-cut only, knowing a good-faith effort would happen to decide on the issue of training vs. children's benefits. It's a debate we are eager to have. We think legislators will see the benefit of helping 170,000 folks versus helping just 1,900 when both proposals include long-term tax cuts for business and leave the Trust Fund with the same level of reserves after six years. Certainly their constituents will."

Once again, we all stay tuned. There was no word yet this morning from Senate Democrats on when the measure might come up for a new floor vote. But the best bet is Friday, when the Senate is scheduled to be in full session.

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