Talk of taxes and unions: Prelude to a political season | The Petri Dish

Jerry Cornfield

As the ruling majority in the state Senate, Republicans can bring up pretty much what they want on the floor when they please.

And March 7 they chose to debate a couple of topics they’ve obsessed over this session: preventing an income tax and diluting the power of state worker unions.

First, they sought to amend the state Constitution with language banning a personal income tax in Washington. Polling repeatedly shows it’s a winning idea with the public so it makes sense to insert a prohibition into this state’s governing document, they argued.

Democrats resisted, wondering why the Senate would waste time debating a concept no one’s proposed. Moreover, they noted, a 1933 decision of the state Supreme Court makes clear a state-imposed tax on personal income is more than likely going to be unconstitutional.

A short time later, conversation heated up again on a bill from Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, to bar state worker unions, and any other entity that collectively bargains with the Office of the Governor, from contributing to the campaign of a gubernatorial candidate.

In 2016, negotiations on new state employee contracts occurred simultaneously with the election. As union members contributed money and time to re-elect Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, their leaders bargained wage hikes and benefits with those from the Office of Financial Management, which is overseen by the governor.

Rossi, who has twice lost bids to become governor, said it was a good-government bill aimed at erasing any appearance of corruption.

Democrats countered that it targeted state workers and sought to silence their political voice. They tried unsuccessfully to broaden the bill to include major businesses whose representatives meet behind closed doors with elected officials to whom the company has made contributions.

The fate of each issue never was in doubt.

Republicans knew the constitutional amendment could not garner the two-thirds majority — 33 of 49 senators — required for passage. It got 27.

Similarly, while Rossi’s bill passed on a 25-24 vote, Republicans know it would be a surprise if it receives a hearing or vote in the Democrat-controlled House, unless that chamber’s majority does so in order to publicly reject it.

These protracted conversations did appear to carry some value for Republicans beyond testing Democrats’ resolve on these prickly matters, and getting on their nerves in the process.

It seemed they were much more about constructing a message GOP candidates might use on the campaign trail in special elections this fall, particularly in the race to elect a successor to the late Republican senator, Andy Hill, in the 45th Legislative District in King County.

That is the seat on which the chamber’s balance of power hinges so both parties are gearing up for a fierce electoral fight.

Democrats are going to seek to win over independent voters partly by associating any GOP hopeful with the policies, practices and tweets of Republican President Donald Trump.

Republicans will try to counter by tapping into those same voters’ frustration with the I-405 express toll lanes and Sound Transit, as well as worries about taxes and, maybe, the influence of state worker unions.

On the Senate floor, neither side can make assertions about the other’s motives.

But at one point in the back-and-forth fussing over the income tax, Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, came close when she wondered if the debate was a purposeful distraction or something political.

Maybe both.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at jcornfield@heraldnet.com.