Peter Callaghan: Sometimes a bill in the Legislature is just a bill

Staff WriterFebruary 6, 2014 

This divided government in Olympia is starting to affect how we think.

Rather than start with policy and then move on to how it might play in the elections, we save time and skip right to the politics.

Like when Gov. Jay Inslee held a rare press conference last week to give details on one of his State of the State promises — $200 million in tax-loophole closures to increase funding for public education.

The first news reports, like the first reaction by Republicans, stressed how there was no way such a plan had a chance in the Legislature. The Senate, where Republicans dominate, would be tough enough, but loophole-closing is heavy lifting even in a House that has been controlled by Inslee’s fellow Democrats since the last time the Mariners made the playoffs.

Yeah, that long.

Campaign reporting flows into legislative reporting. Unless a bill is seen as having a high likelihood of passing, we assume its purpose is politics. The governor, therefore, was assumed to be trying to paint the GOP as anti-education funding.

Without dismissing the political angle, proposing legislation and spending priorities are what the state constitution directs Inslee to do. Article III, section 6 says the governor “shall communicate at every session by message to the Legislature the condition of the affairs of the state and recommend such measures as he shall deem expedient for their action.”

In their reference guide to the state constitution, former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Utter and law professor Hugh Spitzer note that the use of the word “shall” means governors are required to recommend laws they think are necessary. Since the state Supreme Court has let the Legislature and governor know that state school funding — or the lack of it — is pretty important, it would be odd if the governor didn’t have some ideas for addressing it.

I guess folks could argue over the definition of the term “expedient,” a word that has evolved since the constitution was drafted in the late 1800s. Webster’s second definition might be preferred by Inslee critics: “promoting narrow or selfish interests, a means to an end especially one disregarding the welfare of others.”

But the drafters of the constitution didn’t exhibit such cynicism anywhere else in the document. Skepticism of governmental and corporate power was well played out, but not cynicism.

So I think Webster’s first definition of “expedient” is more apt: “appropriate to a given purpose.” And since our constitution doesn’t direct the governor to “recommend such measures as he shall deem expedient for their action but only those with a high likelihood of passing into law,” Inslee was doing what governors should do, even must do.

If anything, he didn’t do enough, and his education agenda remains quite thin. He has refused to lead on the 24-credit high school diploma and is giving comfort to those who choose to believe the feds aren’t serious about us fixing our teacher and principal evaluation system. Given the seriousness of the education issue, I wish he had found both of those “expedient for their action.”

Our tendency toward supplanting policy with politics applies to the Legislature as well. Last week the Majority Coalition Caucus sought action on a bill to let students without settled immigration status qualify for college financial aid. Since it was nearly identical to a bill pushed by Democrats but previously blocked in the Senate, the MCC was accused of looking toward the fall election rather than finally letting an actual bipartisan majority have its say.

I’m not suggesting the election isn’t a strong motive. The only way to avoid having to compromise with the other side early next year is to win complete control of the Legislature later this year.

But proposing laws is sort of the reason we have legislators and governors. It shouldn’t be considered sinister, then, if each side’s proposals coincide with each side’s point of view.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter

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