The deep divisions between the state House and Senate were on display this year when a popular $4 billion construction budget was tanked over a disagreement about rural water rights.
But a stalemate over tributes for a pair of revered politicians who died in the last year reinforces just how dug in the two sides can get.
Republicans who control the state Senate were hoping to name the state’s cancer research fund after Andy Hill, the Senate’s former chief budget writer who died of lung cancer in October 2016. He was 54.
Leaders in the majority-Democrat House wanted to name a new building on the Capitol Campus after Helen Sommers, who served from 1973 until 2009 in the state House. Sommers spent roughly a decade as the chamber’s top budget writer. She died in March at age 84.
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The House approved the Sommers bill nearly unanimously in the regular session and again during the third special session. The Senate did the same with the Hill legislation.
Despite an offer for a one-for-one tribute trade, neither measure ultimately cleared the Legislature.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, was a roadblock for naming the 1063 Block Replacement Project after Sommers. He has said for months it wouldn’t be a fitting tribute because Sommers was known as a fiscal moderate and he believes the building was too expensive.
“I think Helen should be honored,” Schoesler said Tuesday. “I just think that connecting her to a political boondoggle is not a smart idea.”
With no agreement on the Sommers legislation in the Senate, state Rep. Eileen Cody, a Seattle Democrat, put the brakes on the Hill research fund. Cody sponsored the Sommers measure.
“Well the Senate wouldn’t move the Helen Sommers bill, so we didn’t move the Andy Hill bill,” she said. “It was pretty simple.”
Cody said one reason she wanted to christen the 1063 project after Sommers is there are no buildings on the Capitol Campus named after women.
Sommers was one of just 12 women in the 147-member Legislature when first elected, and she often recruited women to run for office. In an interview earlier this year, Cody remembered Sommers’s passion for increasing access to contraception for women.
Sommers is also connected to the building through former Democratic Rep. Hans Dunshee. Sommers was a friend and mentor to Dunshee, who fought against apprehensive Senate Republicans for the 1063 project when he was chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee. Dunshee left the Legislature in 2016 after spending a year as the House budget writer.
I think Helen should be honored. I just think that connecting her to a political boondoggle is not a smart idea
State Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville
Without a new name, the 1063 project building is scheduled to open to tenants in September and will be referred to by its address, 106 11th Avenue, said Linda Kent, a spokeswoman for the Department of Enteprise Services.
That formula is used for the 1500 Jefferson Building on the campus as well, Kent said.
Republicans hoped to name the research fund after Hill because he worked to create it in 2015. He also secured money for it in the two-year budget. Hill had beat lung cancer once in 2009 before he was first elected to the Senate in 2010.
Hill, who wasn’t a smoker, announced last June the cancer had returned.
Schoesler said he presented an argument against the Sommers bill and called for the House to do the same with the Hill measure — or pass it.
“They have to explain why the Andy Hill research fund is a bad idea,” he said. “I’ve explained why naming this political boondoggle is a bad idea.”
Cody said she supported the Hill legislation but needed to hold it as “leverage” to pass her bill.
Well, the Senate wouldn’t move the Helen Sommers bill, so we didn’t move the Andy Hill bill. It was pretty simple.
State Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle
State Sen. Joe Fain, the Republican Floor Leader, presented a rosier picture of the failed tribute swap. The Sommers legislation stalled only because there wasn’t time to properly discuss it, he said.
“Honestly, we were just working on a lot of things,” Fain said.
Fain, of Auburn, was close to Hill. He sponsored the measure to name the cancer research fund.
“When you’re dealing with a potential government shutdown and a constitutional obligation to schools, I’m not going to get too worried naming stuff after politicians — even my best friend,” Fain said.
With that enormous task on the GOP’s plate, he said Hill would be “pretty ticked” if Fain had been “spending energy or political capital trying to name things after him.”
Lawmakers eventually passed an operating budget just hours before the deadline for a shutdown in late June. The budget has roughly $1.8 billion for K-12 schools in the next two years, mostly aimed at satisfying a state Supreme Court order to fully fund education.
Fain said he supported the Sommers legislation and predicted the Senate would talk about it more next year.
“I’m hopeful both will pass later,” Fain said.