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The agony of victory, the thrill of defeat: WA legislature ends session with a whimper, not a bang

Guest post by Brendan Williams, former Washington state representative from the 22nd legislative district.

Brendan Williams

As a legislator I came to realize no principle on Earth could withstand the arbitrary pressure to adjourn on time – if such potential existed but for principle/s. The same was true toward the end of this year’s special session.

Thus, on its last day in Olympia the Washington Legislature found itself “reorganizing and streamlining central service functions, powers, and duties of state government” – to quote the title of Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5931.

Poignantly, the bill, which only appeared April 11, was prime-sponsored by Senator Michael Baumgartner (R., 6th District).

Baumgartner, a Tea Party favorite, had addressed the February 26 Tea Party rally at the State Capitol. There he encouraged Tea Partiers to push for health savings accounts for state workers, which a Democratic Legislature also authorized, and derided counter-protesters, saying, “I know there’s not as many of us out here today, because most of us have jobs – private sector jobs that pay for those folks” (Baumgartner is a lifelong government employee).

Such was the final-day eagerness to trample state workers that ESSB 5931 passed the House with Democrats – including Speaker Frank Chopp – supplying the votes to allow a 54-42 passage. It then passed the Senate 31-15, where only one Republican voted no.

The bill is a 270-page monstrosity. It would have been instructive to administer a quiz immediately following its passage and ask those tested to identify just five concepts in it. For example, the bill somehow addresses even the probationary employment periods of campus police officers. One imagines an excited team of graduate students at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government beginning a case study on it as an exercise in explaining how not to reform government.

With state worker morale already at rock-bottom in the affected agencies, ESSB 5931 would consolidate duties from four agencies – the Office of Financial Management and the departments of Personnel, General Administration, and Printing – into a new Department of Enterprise Services. Of those four agencies, only OFM is not fully subsumed.

In the wake of the debacle of its management’s role in creating a new $255 million state data center that is largely-empty (the object of the bill requiring State Auditor Brian Sonntag to further flog government with a performance audit), the Department of Information Services escapes the fate of being destroyed, with salt spread upon it, and is instead renamed the Consolidated Technology Services Agency. Its workers will pay for the sins of their management. One estimate in The Olympian was that one out of five will lose their jobs.

In the standard fashion, the “reform” actually carries with it the creation of a great deal of new bureaucracy and attendant acronyms. Case in point: A new OCIO (Office of the Chief Information Officer) will be created, and the CIO will serve as chair of a new 13-member TSB (Technology Services Board).

In 1946, George Orwell wrote, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

In its zeal for contracting out, the bill eliminates current law requiring classified employees whose jobs, or work, would be displaced by a contract to get the opportunity to provide alternatives to the contract. After all, why let efficiency and equity get in the way of conservative messaging?

In fact, it was only through the efforts of the Washington Federation of State Employees that basic collective bargaining rights were preserved for affected employees in the face of the state’s Wisconsin-esque effort to abolish those rights.

One’s left feeling this is the sort of senseless “reform-for-the-sake-of-reform” that’s the hallmark of the dreary last few sessions. For example, rather than eliminate a sinecure to which legislators aspire – an Office of the Lieutenant Governor that will cost the state, in the next biennium, $1.48 million (the maintenance level of that office’s budget was only $747,000 in 2001-03) – “efficiencies” are found in eliminating represented workers’ jobs, or at least worsening working conditions for them.

There’s a sad symbolism to that example. Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen supported Initiative 1082’s attack on workers’ compensation, while labor opposed it. While I-1082 failed, its message was resurrected by a Democratic governor and a Legislature kept Democratic through labor’s efforts, who then rolled over labor and passed workers’ compensation changes more objectively harmful to workers than I-1082 itself. It may be that in Washington, when it comes to workers’ rights, winning – ultimately – is losing. Here some Democrats find agony in victory and thrill in defeat.

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