Politics & Government

These bills have no hope of passing, so why do politicians even bring them up?

In this photo taken April 26, 2017, the Washington State Capitol, also known as the Legislative Building, is seen in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
In this photo taken April 26, 2017, the Washington State Capitol, also known as the Legislative Building, is seen in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) AP

There has been an influx of headline-grabbing legislation during the first two special sessions at the Legislature this year, but none of it has been about taxes or spending.

Instead, some lawmakers have proposed privatizing The Evergreen State College, moving Washington toward a single-payer health care system and banning people from wearing masks and hoods at protests.

None of those bills are likely to pass.

Leaders at the Capitol have mostly swatted them away as irrelevant to writing the budget necessary to comply with court-ordered fixes to the K-12 education system, a task that’s kept them late again this year.

The bills also are politically contentious and appear to split mostly along party lines in a Legislature divided between the majority-Democrat House and the GOP-controlled Senate.

Those long odds for a shot at the governor’s desk raise the question: Why bother?

“Some could argue that it is meaningless and not worthwhile,” said Ron Dotzauer, a public-relations consultant who previously ran campaigns for Democrats in Washington. “(Lawmakers) may argue, ‘Let’s get the debate discussed.’ ”

In other words, lawmakers and consultants said Hail Mary legislation could have value by sparking broader conversations about an issue of interest or striking a chord with a politician’s base or swing voters.

In some cases, it also could become part of a budget compromise if the issue is important enough and could be pulled off in a short period of time, said Keith Schipper, a Republican campaign consultant.

But sometimes, the bills are just “silly, ridiculous,” and aimed at getting headlines, Schipper said.

Dotzauer said he would advise lawmakers to avoid such special-session bills “if they’re just doing it to kind of pop off” or for “potentially overt political purposes.”

“But if they, in fact, want this conversation to occur, and they truly believe in what they’re putting out there, there’s nothing wrong with doing it,” he said.

GOP Rep. Matt Manweller of Ellensburg, who introduced the bill to privatize Evergreen, said he didn’t expect his bill to pass this year. Manweller called his legislation a “figurative shot across the bow” to school administration and protesters over recent debates about race at the college.

Whether his legislation fits into the “serious” or “silly” category might depend on one’s view of the unrest at the college, which has been partially over comments about race made by a biology professor and the subsequent campus threats.

Key Democrats said they didn’t want to strip school’s funding over protests.

But the bill was certainly timely with Evergreen making national news.

It’s a similar case for the single-payer health care bill proposed by Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds. Chase told The Seattle Times she wants Washington state to mirror the legislation currently being pushed in California to create a new health care system run by the government.

The idea has been a favorite of some liberals and many fans of Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

It also would represent an overhaul of Washington’s health care operations.

Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, introduced his bill to restrict mask-wearing after demonstrators, some of them masked, caused property damage during this year’s May Day protests in Olympia. Some opponents of the bill had concerns the measure clashed with the First Amendment.

Dotzauer said neither Chase’s nor Manweller’s proposal is controversial with most people in their districts. He said many voters don’t usually view hot-topic bills as a sign of wasting time or not focusing enough on the budget.

Some top lawmakers feel the same.

“These members are dropping bills to express the will of the people on these issues,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Republican from Ritzville.

Schoesler said he’s focused on the budget, but committee chairs could schedule hearings on other bills during special sessions if the issues are important enough. Legislation introduced this year could also be considered in the 2018 legislative session, he said.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, a Democrat from Covington, pointed out there’s only a small group of budget negotiators working on a compromise.

Sullivan said they aren’t distracted by Chase’s and Manweller’s “message” bills. But he said they wouldn’t take them seriously this year, either.

“I think from a leadership level, we set the agenda for what we’re going to do and the work we’re going to complete for the session, and we’re clearly saying that doesn’t rise to the level of consideration,” he said.

Sullivan said the only two topics being seriously discussed that aren’t consequential to the budget are a paid family leave proposal and a bill relating to a state Supreme Court ruling on water rights, known as the Hirst decision.

Those are on the table since they were introduced early in the session and have seen scrutiny in the legislative process.

Sullivan said he doesn’t discourage bills during special sessions. Yet only some have “real value,” he said.

“In other cases, I think it’s more theater,” Sullivan said.

So far, public hearings for Honeyford’s, Manweller’s and Chase’s proposals haven’t been scheduled.

Lawmakers have until June 30 to pass a two-year budget or risk a partial government shutdown. Don’t expect much legislative action on the trio of bills in the meantime, Dotzauer said.

“If you want to do something and you want to begin the conversation on some issues, go ahead and offer it up,” he said. “But also understand — which I’m sure these responsible legislators do — the probability of action occurring on them is little, not none.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein