Democrats fail in effort to temporarily take over the state Senate

By Walker Orenstein

The News Tribune

OLYMPIA — Senate Democrats lost a lengthy procedural chess match on the Senate floor Friday when their bid to temporarily wrest control from a Republican-led majority was killed, twice, by a member of their own party.

Democrats had been hoping to bypass Republican leadership in order to force a Senate vote Monday on a bill dealing with school district levies.

But they could only do so because the Senate, usually controlled by a 25-vote Republican-led coalition, has been at a 24-24 tie since Republican Brian Dansel resigned Tuesday to join the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A Republican appointee will replace him, but that hasn’t happened yet.

With that in mind, Democrats invaded a morning floor session usually reserved for ceremonial busywork to try and amend Senate rules so they could force a Monday floor vote.

Only state Sen. Joe Fain, the Republican floor leader, represented the GOP at the makeshift debate. He was initially outnumbered by Democrats 24-1.

Democrats had thought Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, a Democrat who is in charge of making rulings on parliamentary procedure, might decide the Senate’s rules could be changed by a majority of senators actually in the Senate at the time.

But Habib denied Democrats’ attempt to change the rules, saying they needed a majority of the 49-member Senate to do so. Habib made the ruling after hours of deliberation.

Democrats then tried another parliamentary move — to temporarily suspend all of the Senate’s rules — to force a Monday vote on the bill.

For that motion to succeed, it needed approval by two thirds of the senators present in the chamber, but with a catch: At least 25 total senators needed to be in the chamber.

By that point in the afternoon, Democrats had lost their quorum.

State Sen. Mark Mullet, a Democrat from Issaquah, left to attend to family business, leaving just 24 senators on the floor, said state Sen. Marko Liias, the Democratic floor leader.

If Democrats had forced a floor vote, they were hoping to convince at least one Republican to join them to pass the bill Monday. Habib also could potentially cast a tie-breaking vote on legislation, though some dispute his ability to do so.

The bill backed by Democrats would delay a planned reduction in how much school districts can collect in local property tax levies. Without a delay of the so-called “levy cliff,” local school districts could lose about $358 million annually beginning in January 2018, according to a legislative estimate.

The Democrat-majority House voted 62-35 to pass House Bill 1059 on Monday.

Republicans have been hesitant to pass the delay in the “levy cliff” at the moment, arguing it should be done as part of a broader plan to fix the way the state pays for education.

Lawmakers this session are working to comply with a state Supreme Court education ruling, known as McCleary, that directs the state to reduce an overreliance on local levies to pay teacher salaries.

On Friday, Republicans released an education plan that would eventually avoid the levy cliff if passed by the Legislature.

Though Democrats were foiled on the Senate floor, Liias said the day wasn’t a total bust.

“We really elevated the profile of the levy cliff which was our goal from day one of session,” he said. “And we’ll do a better job at attendance next time.”