Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Questions To Ponder For Political Junkies

It's the time of session where we spend hours standing in the hallway. I might as well post some items of interest while I'm waiting.

> Can Democrats win back the support of labor?

Following up on a story I've mentioned before, NPR's Austin Jenkins reports that relationships remain uneasy between legislative Democrats and the labor movement. "The trick for Democrats is striking the right balance," writes Jenkins. "Just as they’re trying to mend fences with labor, they have to close another $2.6 billion budget shortfall and demonstrate to voters that they’re willing to take on entrenched interests... All of this is happening in a high-stakes election year. All House members and about half of state senators are up for re-election in 2010. Democrats need their base to be fired-up and ready to work."

> Will the 2010 be a year where voters turn against Democratic incumbents?

Ted Van Dyk at suggests incumbents generally, and Democrats in particular, could be in trouble in this year's elections. "To voters, 2010 elections, some nine months distant, are something only remotely in mind," Van Dyk says. "To elected officials, however, they are a consuming topic as they face what many sense to be the imminence of their hanging. Could presumed safe-seat incumbents, such as Sen. Patty Murray, be at risk? The answer, almost everywhere, is yes."

Van Dyk points out that trends are going against the Democrats now and, even though the election is still months away, there's reason to believe things aren't going to get any better between now and the election. "The message for Republicans is: Don't count political chickens before they hatch," Van Dyk concluded. "An anti-incumbent tide will not be enough to elect your candidates if those candidates are unattractive or appear unqualified... In 2010, however, hopes of GOP bumbling will not be enough to save incumbent Democrats running in perilous conditions. They will have to run hard and smart to keep their places."

> What's the difference between a "Blue/Green" legislator and a "Roadkill" legislator?

Jerry Cornfield of the Everett Herald reports that there are now competing sub-caucuses among legislative Democrats. "Centrist Democrats frustrated that their ideas and voices are routinely mashed by the Legislature’s liberals and conservatives are banding together," Cornfield writes. "They call themselves the Roadkill Caucus... They envision themselves staking out and securing a middle ground in heated philosophical debates sure to break out in the session’s pressure-packed final days... Historically, there have been many such caucuses within the Legislature. This year, they are most visible among Democrats who hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Best known is the Blue-Green Caucus with roughly 20 House members whose political concerns are centered on labor and environmental issues."

Oh, well. Politics can be brutal, but it's never boring. -- Dennis

Rep. Williams Proposes Reducing Legislative Per Diem

SB 6503, the "furlough bill," has been sitting on the House floor calendar for several days now and could be brought up for a vote by the full House at any time. A couple of different amendments have been submitted but the most provocative is the amendment proposed by Rep. Brendan Williams (D-22).

Williams' amendment would "reduce the per diem compensation paid to legislators during the 2011 session by an amount equivalent to the reduction in employee compensation costs achieved under this act for the average legislative employee." In his Feb. 5 Legislative Update, Williams wrote:

"So while a financial industry that taxpayers bailed out resumes showering record bonuses upon executives, we’re to somehow blame our state’s budget shortfall on . . . state employees in charge of child support enforcement? Mental health nurses? Community corrections officers? Audiologists at the School for the Deaf? Custodians? Social workers? Those processing unemployment claims? Community college professors? If politicians choose to pile more hardship onto the working-class families in my district, they should take some responsibility upon themselves."

Most folks don't realize that legislative staff voluntarily took furloughs last year to prevent layoffs, and now SB 6503 imposes even more furloughs on them [See Sec. 2(e)]. Legislators themselves can't be furloughed because the state constitution requires their salaries to be set by an independent commission, which is why Williams proposes reducing per diem. It's not "salary." -- Dennis

Saturday, February 6, 2010

It's Raining Cash Bonuses In the Attorney General's Office

Joel Connelly of the Seattle P-I recently reported that the Attorney General's office awarded $599,000 in cash bonuses to exempt employees in FY 2009 -- more than any other state agency. A spokesperson for Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, is quoted as defending the bonuses as "a fiscally responsible and highly accountable form of recognition."

The Northwest Progressive Institute isn't buying it. "We've lost track of how many times we have heard Republicans both inside and outside of state government claim that state employees are too well paid and that government is wasteful. And yet, here we have a situation where state employees working for a Republican were given bonuses well after it had become painfully clear that we were facing an unprecedented budget crisis."

SHB 2998, sponsored by Rep. Larry Seaquist (D-26), extending the temporary ban on cash bonuses for state workers, was recently approved by the Senate Ways & Means Committee. We are grateful for the leadership of Rep. Seaquist, along with Rep. Mike Armstrong (R-12) and Rep. Sam Hunt (D-22), on this issue. -- Dennis

Will the Legislature Close Some Tax Loopholes?

A recent cover story in the Seattle Weekly went into some depth on the issue of tax loopholes. "Over the past two years alone," Rick Anderson reported, "[tax loopholes] have accounted for a record $98.5 billion in potential tax revenue the state never got... When Seattle Weekly detailed the breaks in a cover story six years ago, the headline was '$64 Billion Falls Through the Tax Cracks.' There were 503 tax breaks on the books then. Today there are 567. Thanks to new exemptions and inflation, the amount of uncollected taxes has doubled over the past decade."

Anderson notes that in the face of a major economic crisis, legislators are talking about closing some loopholes but it won't be easy. "Any major exemption repeals would be a course change for the legislature, which has been adding breaks at the rate of more than a dozen each year. Repeal may be in the air, but more than two dozen new exemption bills have already been offered this session."

Into the breach steps Rep. Ross Hunter (D-48), Chair of the House Finance Committee, who has introduced HB 3176. According to Brad Shannon of the Olympian, HB 3176 "would raise or protect up to $363 million in revenue in the next year by eliminating a series of tax exemptions."

Lightning quick, the Seattle Times launched the first counter-attack, warning Legislators "they had better not" raise taxes or close loopholes. The Times went on to argue passionately in defense of tax loopholes that benefit gold bullion dealers. "After considering the repeal of preferences, the Legislature should concentrate on spending cuts," threatened the Times. "This is not tax-party time. Legislators need to keep that in mind, particularly legislators up for re-election in November."

In spite of their heated arguments in defense of the wealthy, the Seattle Times is far from the greatest threat. Dozens of corporate lobbyists will be working diligently behind to scenes to reduce the size and scope of Hunter's bill. It's worth $363 million now, but the odds are good that it will represent a smaller total by the time it winds its way through the legislative process -- if it survives at all.

Some will argue HB 3176 goes too far, many others will argue it should go farther. But the truth is, HB 3176 is the first honest attempt at trimming back some loopholes in a long, long time -- and it should be celebrated as such.

For all WFSE members who have wondered why their wages are going backward while special-interest tax loopholes proliferate, HB 3176 is a bill we can get behind. So urge your legislators to support HB 3176. It's a long-overdue step in the right direction. -- Dennis