Washington State Senator Proposes Fining Legislators for Gridlock

Washington state Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom has proposed fining legislators $250 for each day that they go beyond the allotted time in the legislative session. Recently, the state faced the prospect of a government shutdown when lawmakers could not agree on a budget.
July 11, 2013

By Andrew Garber

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom thinks he knows a way to prevent lawmakers from pushing the state to the brink of a government shutdown in the future: Fine them if they take too long to pass a budget.

Tom created a buzz after broaching the idea of a $250-a-day fine for each day lawmakers go past the time allotted in the regular session.

"We need a forcing mechanism, and right now, there really is not one," Tom said Tuesday. "I think it's crazy that it comes down to notices to state workers that we're going to shut down state government as the only forcing mechanism that gets us out of town."

House Appropriations Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, disagreed with Tom's idea. "I just don't think it works," Hunter said.

When Tom was asked if legislative leaders rather than the rank and file should take most of the blame for not being able to finish the Legislature's business sooner, he said , "It is all of our responsibility. To think that we can unilaterally act alone as leadership, that's not true in the House or the Senate.

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"We have to bring our guys along. There were a lot of our guys who were like, 'Let's stay here no matter how long it takes.' There were people who did not want to compromise," Tom said. "We don't sit there and leadership tells everybody what to do and they follow along. ... We did lead, but we were messengers of the caucus."

Republicans took control of the state Senate for the first time in eight years in January when Tom, D-Medina, and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, crossed party lines to caucus with the GOP. Republicans appointed Tom majority leader. They held a narrow 25-24 vote majority.

Tom, who aired the idea of financial penalties in an article in The (Tacoma) News Tribune, said he's not sure $250 a day is the right amount, but "certainly we should not have per diem," which pays for their daily expenses.

He's no stranger to controversial ideas. Last session he introduced legislation to eliminate the state's pension system for new workers and for current employees younger than age 45, and replace it with a 401(k)-style plan. That idea failed to get support.

The Legislature spent 153 days in session this year, dragging out the budget-writing process so long that thousands of notices were sent to state workers warning them of furloughs if a deal was not reached in time. Gov. Jay Inslee signed a new budget on June 30, one day before state offices would have been forced to close.

Tom said he's not assigning blame for the delay and that his proposal would motivate Republicans and Democrats alike to reach a deal sooner.

"I'm just saying, let's get a motivating function out there," Tom said. "If we're going to come to agreement let's get to it sooner rather than later."

Hunter said he didn't think a fine would be enforceable even the Legislature approved it.

"The (state) constitution lays out clearly how bills get passed. The constitution lays out clearly how legislators get paid. Fining them for not doing something on some schedule that's not in the constitution is probably not enforceable," he said.

Beyond that, Hunter said, a fine like the one Tom is proposing would be a big financial hit to some lawmakers who depend on their $42,106 annual salary for a living.

"One of the things that I want to be cautious about is trying to create a scenario where people can't afford to do the job (of legislator). ... If you want to take this seriously and you don't want to just have people who are independently wealthy to be in the Legislature, then you have to think about this stuff," Hunter said.

(c)2013 The Seattle Times

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