Senate leader suggests fines to speed work

Rodney Tom says he’ll introduce a bill that would charge lawmakers for each overtime day

msantos@theolympian.comJuly 9, 2013 

After an overtime legislative session that brought Washington to the brink of a government shutdown, the state’s top senator says lawmakers need greater incentive to finish on time — the monetary kind.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said he plans to introduce legislation next year that would fine lawmakers $250 each for every day they go past the allotted length of the legislative session.

Tom said his goal is to avoid another session like 2013, when lawmakers couldn’t agree on a budget within 105 days and required two special sessions for a total of 153 days, nearly causing dozens of state offices to close and thousands of state workers to be furloughed.

Tom said he also will propose stopping lawmakers’ per diem payments during extra sessions, meaning that they would be responsible for their own meals and daily expenses when they work overtime.

“We don’t have enough of a forcing function to get us out of town,” said Tom, who leads the Senate majority coalition of 23 Republicans and two Democrats.

The state constitution sets the duration of legislative sessions at 105 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered ones. Fining lawmakers for every day they go beyond that would “just give every legislator motivation” to finish quickly, Tom said, adding that he’s open to changing the amount of the fine.

“Is $250 the right number? I don’t know,” Tom said. “Maybe $50 is enough.”

State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said he thinks Tom’s proposal has little chance of moving forward.

Hunter, who chairs the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers spent extra time this year because they were dealing with the aftermath of an economic recession, as well as a state Supreme Court order to put more money into basic education.

“This was a very difficult budget to negotiate,” Hunter said. “We are going to fight like cats and dogs for the next four or five years to get this problem resolved.”

Though Tom said his idea is serious, it’s not unheard of for lawmakers to introduce tongue-in-cheek legislation that would affect each other’s pay.

Earlier this year, four House Democrats suggested that freshman legislators receive a lower salary than their peers — a response to Republican legislation that would have let companies pay newly hired workers below minimum wage. The Democrats introduced a resolution but quickly withdrew it.

Rep. Laurie Jinkins, one of the lawmakers who suggested cutting the pay of freshman legislators, said she sees the Democrats’ sarcastic proposal and Tom’s idea to fine lawmakers “as two totally different things.”

She called Tom’s proposal “outrageous.” Jinkins said that Tom, as Senate majority leader, already has the power to end stalemates in the Legislature and get lawmakers home on time.

“I guess you can file bills for messages all you want, but my message is, do the work during session,” said Jinkins, D-Tacoma. “Especially if you have the power to influence the work, which he does.”

Lawmakers will reconvene for a 60-day session in January.

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