Bogged down on Boeing
Seattle Times chief political reporter
The Legislature's special session hit stall speed last night as the state's most powerful lobbying interests clashed over changes to Washington's unemployment-insurance system — one of the key items Boeing has said it wants.
Without agreement on changes to the unemployment-insurance system that pays laid-off workers, there could be no final action on a $3 billion-plus tax break Locke says is needed to woo Boeing and a factory for its proposed new jetliner.
A second special session began this morning to finish the Boeing work in time for the June 20 deadline for states to submit bids for the 7E7 final assembly plant.
"We may be here all night," Locke said.
Locke was pushing a compromise unemployment bill last night that he was confident would win support of House Democrats who yesterday refused to approve a version passed by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Late last night — the 30th in a 30-day special session — the Democratic governor, Boeing, the Machinists' union, other businesses and Republican lawmakers had aligned behind the compromise unemployment bill.
Locke had opposed a business-endorsed plan passed by the Senate yesterday afternoon because of cuts to benefits for seasonal workers. After a series of meetings through the day, Locke said the business coalition had addressed all of his concerns about throwing thousands of seasonal workers off the unemployment rolls. In a time of high unemployment, Locke said doing that would have been an "economic disaster for our state."
But House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, was still a holdout, although early today he pledged to let an unemployment-insurance vote come up in the House.
Washington State Labor Council President Rick Bender said that if Locke was aligning with business at the late hour it was an attempt to isolate Chopp and House Democrats.
"The governor's been good at that," Bender said. "He set (Chopp) up on the budget. He definitely put the House Democrats in a box."
Senate Ways and Means Chairman Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish said Chopp should let a vote happen and let the full House decide the fate of the bill before midnight.
"Just let them vote, Frank," Rossi said. "Set your people free."
Earlier in the day, the Senate had passed a business-backed unemployment bill. The House had passed the Boeing tax breaks.
Each house had done just enough to blame each other for inaction.
Chopp: "Why would they be against passing a tax break for Boeing?"
Rossi: "If there's no leadership from the governor and Frank Chopp, we will lose Boeing, and it will be on their heads."
The unemployment-insurance fight overshadowed the massive tax break in the final machinations of the legislative session. That's because reform of unemployment insurance would help most Washington businesses, not just Boeing and its suppliers; is not contingent on building the 7E7 plant here; and would result in cuts to monthly unemployment checks — putting a face (and hard hats) on the issue.
Yesterday was a day of fits and starts, though fits won the day.
House lawyers researched whether the clock could be stopped to artificially lengthen what was supposed to be the final day of the 30-day special session. (The official answer: Nope.)
Sergeants-at-arms were sent to look for Senate Democrats who played hooky in what they hoped was a strategic move to bolster chances for their preferred unemployment fix. They returned on their own, including two who stepped out for a trip for coffee, dry cleaning and a roundabout Capital City tour.
Outside the Senate chambers yesterday morning Sen. Don Carlson, R-Vancouver, stopped two top Locke aides, Martha Choe, director of the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, and Jim Hedrick, the governor's budget lobbyist.
But Chopp was not to be pushed, by the governor or anyone else. "I don't want to get rushed and do the wrong thing," he said. "If we need a little bit of time for that, it's OK." Specifically, he is concerned about trying to minimize cuts in benefits and wants to protect seasonal workers.
He said the Legislature could come back for a second special session to finish the Boeing bills.
At least a half-dozen other states — including California, Texas, Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas — are likewise preparing bids. Washington state officials say they want to submit it at least a few days early.
Yesterday afternoon many Democrats were absent as the Senate prepared to vote on the GOP-preferred bill.
Republicans instituted a parliamentary move that mandated attendance, kept the doors locked to stop any further escapes, and sent security guards scrambling to look for the missing members.
Sens. Aaron Reardon of Everett and Erik Poulsen of Seattle scurried from the Senate to the House office building to look for Chopp. He wasn't in. They dashed to Poulsen's SUV and headed out.
They said they wanted to slow the vote in the Senate to give Chopp more time to build support for his unemployment-insurance plan, and to put pressure on business to go along with it.
"I think there'll be enough pressure that business will virtually have no choice due to the late hour," Poulsen said.
As they drove downtown, the Mexican Hat Dance sounded on Reardon's cellphone.
Senate Minority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, called a couple of times to check on their whereabouts. Heading to pick up Reardon's dry cleaning, the senators said they were trying to help Chopp, in part, because the speaker had come under heavy criticism in the regular session for trying to micromanage the session.
Poulsen took the most roundabout way back to the Capitol, driving to Tumwater, past the historic, soon-to-be-closed Olympia Brewery, on to I-5, and off the freeway down the steepest road in town — named unofficially after a former lawmaker who one night didn't make it all the way to the bottom. As they made their way to the Senate they were met by security guard Ron McClinton, who hustled them into the chambers.
The delay only slowed the Senate's business and did not stop Republicans from passing their unemployment bill, 33-12. Poulsen and Reardon both voted for it.
More than 100 construction workers and seasonal workers, wearing hard hats and carrying signs to save their benefits, spent much of the day outside the Senate, trying to turn up the heat on lawmakers.
The proposal would drop more than 3,000 seasonal workers from the unemployment rolls and generate $100 million to $200 million a year in savings to businesses through a sweeping set of cuts to weekly benefits for all unemployed workers.
Those key elements contrasted with Chopp's proposal. His plan would keep seasonal workers eligible and make much smaller trims to each unemployed worker's check. Jeff Johnson, a negotiator for the Washington State Labor Council, said at first glance Chopp's proposal would save businesses a little more than $80 million a year. The state's per-employee unemployment costs are about triple the national average.
"Legislators are going to have to decide, especially Democrats with Boeing and Machinists in their districts, whether they want Boeing to stay here or not," said Tom Dooley, a business negotiator with the Association of Washington Business.
Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, said the new system is important not just for Boeing, but for all businesses.
But some of the centrist Democrats who represented swing votes in favor of the business proposal, such as Reardon, said his vote in favor of the business proposal was all about helping Boeing.
On the House floor, where the tax break passed on a 79-13 vote, Democrats said Locke's plan will do more than just win the 7E7 plant for Washington.
"We're in the economic fight of our lives," said Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle.
The 13 no votes included some of the House's more liberal and conservative members, who either thought it was too much money or not enough.
"I want to see Boeing stay in this state," said Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane. But "are we going to be ready for the thousands of businesses that say, 'What about me? What about my tax break?' "
Staff reporters Luke Timmerman, Ralph Thomas and Andrew Garber contributed to this report. David Postman: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org