A legislative town hall meeting at the Capitol on Saturday morning sent clear messages to 22nd Legislative District lawmakers about things they already knew: They should keep working to pass a background-checks law for all gun buyers, raise revenues by closing tax exemptions or passing an income tax, and protect the elderly and infirm from further budget cuts.
The trio of Democratic lawmakers in the liberal district – Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County, Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia and Rep. Chris Reykdal of Tumwater – defended their failure to produce results on a universal background checks bill that locked up the House Democratic Caucus for most of Tuesday before bill sponsors simply gave up.
House Bill 1588 never got a vote and died at Wednesday’s bill cutoffs because it was a few votes shy of the 50 needed and only one Republican – Rep. Mike Hope of Snohomish County – came over to the gun control side.
“As a team you didn’t get it done,’’ scolded Maureen Farr, who sported a blue baseball cap and said she was with the Stop Thurston Gun Violence campaign. The advocate said Colorado passed a background checks law and other states like New York banned large ammo clips after last year’s schoolhouse slaughter in Connecticut, and she told the lawmakers, “I expect you to get out on the floor and get this passed!”
Fraser said that it was a bit of a “puzzle” that the background checks bill could not even get out of committee en route to a floor vote in the Senate, which is controlled by the 23 Republicans and two maverick Democrats who formed the Majority Coalition Caucus.
Fraser is Senate Democratic Caucus chair and in the minority this year. But she reminded the crowd that all three 22nd district lawmakers support the background checks bill. She suggested that activists “be sure to talk to folks from districts that don’t support it.”
Hunt added: “We have 3 (legislative) districts adjoining us here where it is much more difficult to get those votes (on gun control). … It’s not that far to drive and telephone calls are free.’’
Pete Farr, a retired elementary school teacher, said it “tears my heart out that my state can’t do anything sensible (and) reasonable’’ on guns. And Barbara Trendall, who said she worked for a nonprofit that does children’s services, noted the irony: “We do background checks on our own volunteers and they enter clients’ homes armed with vacuum cleaners.’’
Hunt, who was in the middle of House Democratic Caucus meetings in which votes were counted, said that once advocates realized Tuesday afternoon they would fall short there were many Democratic members “in tears.” He said “there is only so much you can do” and claimed that Republican Rep. Maureen Walsh of Walla Walla “got so beat up by her Republican caucus she withdrew” support for the bill she had co-sponsored.
Hunt went on to call the National Rifle Association “evil,’’ and Reykdal said voters should encourage their friends and relatives who belong to the NRA to cancel memberships.
“This will be our colossal failure this year not to get universal background checks,’’ Reykdal said. “We will try with all our hearts again next year to get it done.’’
He also urged voters – “if this is your passion” – to help win more Democratic seats in 2014. Reykdal also suggested that a citizen initiative may be the way to break through on the issue.
The two-hour town hall touched on many other topics on a day that lawmakers were fanning out across the state to meet with constituents. In sharp contrast, Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County and Rep. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm – who represent the conservative and libertarian-leaning 2nd district – were meeting with their constituents in Lacey, Yelm and Pierce County.
It is safe to assume they were hearing a different message than in the 22nd. Both Wilcox and Alexander put out a so-called “education first” budget on Thursday that avoids any significant tax increases.
Hunt, Fraser and Reykdal heard about a lot more than guns. One speaker complained that plans for controlling floods along the Chehalis River Basin have failed to deliver and that a dam on one of the river’s tributaries is the wrong idea.
Mary Moore of the League of Women Voters said her concern was “revenue, revenue, revenue.” She identified a tax exemption worth more than $60 million for oil refineries is one that lawmakers need to close.
Fraser in opening remarks said the budget this year is “exceptionally, exceptionally difficult’’ that that “revenues are dribbling up” but not as quickly as expenses grow. But Fraser noted that Gov. Jay Inslee is going to put out a revenue proposal next week that includes closure of tax loopholes.
Inslee’s plan originally was to come out Monday. But aides say it could be delayed until after Wednesday’s revenue forecast, which is widely expected to add to a budget shortfall that recently swelled to $1.3 billion.
The tax exemptions suggestion drew some applause, and Reykdal said a recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down the two-thirds supermajority requirement for new taxes is a “game changer.” But he said not to assume people want to suddenly vote to raise taxes.
The theme of a shrinking government with a limited revenue base to support programs and public schools was clear throughout the two-hour session.
Loren Freeman, who with his wife cares for a daughter with Down syndrome, said they save the state $160,000 a year by caring for her instead of handing her over to a state-run institution. Freeman said the effect of budget cuts over recent years has been a $4,000 tax increases on his family.
Freeman warned that the situation for those caring for fragile loved ones is “approaching crisis” and once the crisis occurs a “crash” will occur.
And Don Carlson, a former Republican senator from Vancouver, thanked Fraser and other lawmakers for blocking a pension reform bill from Senate Majority leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, that would have ended fixed-benefit pensions for state workers younger than 45 and replaced them with 401(k)-style retirement plans.
Carlson also urged the legislators to work for solutions to problems faced by the poor, the homeless and those in tent camps.
Overall it was a day and a place where Republicans could not be blamed if they had chosen not to stand and talk.
And Reykdal seemed to sense that, standing up and saying of Carlson. “If you don’t believe the Republican Party has changed in the last decade, I want you to look at this man.’’