Although the Legislature left town July 9, the true end of the session came July 15 when Gov. Jay Inslee signed the last three of the 363 bills lawmakers managed to pass in their record-setting, 176-day, triple-overtime stint.
That’s an average of just over two bills a day, although averages are among the most misleading of numbers. Many days, particularly in the three overtime periods, went without a bill being passed, or even debated, because most legislators weren’t around.
Every bill is important to someone, but some bills were momentous, such as the $38.2 billion operating budget with more money for schools, preschoolers and mental health services and a cut in college tuition. Some will be felt for years to come, like the extra 11.9 cents in gasoline taxes over the next year, as well as the highways, bridges, road maintenance, ferries and transit projects those taxes will help pay for.
The last three bills Inslee signed were the transportation “package” with the gas tax increase and other transportation fees, the long list of projects to soak up that money, and the authority for the state to sell bonds to build said projects and repay them with said taxes.
Road projects are among the most popular items a Legislature can approve because they help people get from here to there and pay construction workers a good wage to build them. Signing ceremonies become the legislative equivalent of success having many parents, with opportunities to smile for the cameras and applaud the speeches about the great accomplishment.
It is unusual but not unprecedented for a legislator who voted against the bill to show up at such events, just as they do for a ribbon-cutting, particularly if it has money for an important project in his or her district. Some people regard that as hypocrisy, but it can be alibied by saying there were a few flaws in the bill but the project is good and the constituents benefit.
Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, may have set a new standard for chutzpah, however. An hour before the ceremony he issued a press release blasting the gas tax and the project list as a raw deal for his constituents. He said he was heading to Seattle himself to “call out” Inslee on the tax hike and the lack of transportation reforms.
His strident opposition wasn’t a surprise. Benton voted against all three bills, with a four-minute denunciation of the gas tax and the lack of reforms during the final debate. But it was worth tuning in to TVW to see if he’d be picketing the ceremony in sackcloth and ashes, carrying a placard inscribed “Woe is Us!”
Instead he joined the happy crowd behind the lectern as various people spoke in pre-signing exhortations. Among them, Sen. Curtis King, a fellow Republican who helped craft the package, praised Inslee for giving up a long-standing push for a carbon-reduction system and said the package would move the state forward.
“It works for every part of the state,” King said. “We have reforms and from where I sit, they’re substantial.”
The silver-haired Vancouver senator wasn’t always in the picture frame in the TVW webcast but seemed to be smiling and applauding along with everyone else when he came into view. Asked if there was a confrontation with the governor after the signing, an Inslee staffer said not that she saw: “Just lots of smiling for photos.”
Benton’s animus to the transportation package was not shared by the Washington Climate Collaborative, which praised the bills within minutes of their signing as a way to reduce traffic bottlenecks and pollution.
Just like some coalition of tree huggers, you might be saying. Except the Climate Collaborative only sounds like a bunch of enviros. It’s really an umbrella group for chambers of commerce and economic development councils, farm and food processing groups, economic development councils, construction unions and trade groups, oil marketers and the Western States Petroleum Association, many of whom have been fighting Inslee’s carbon-reduction plans for the last three years. So yeah, they’re happy.