Sen. Doug Ericksen. Courtesy of Washington State Legislative Services

Trump Appointments Could Grind Washington State Senate to a Halt

Sen. Doug Ericksen will be splitting time between Olympia and D.C., raising questions of both propriety and procedure.

Two members of Washington’s Republican Senate caucus have one or both feet in Washington D.C., which will likely slow down the normal molasses-like pace of major legislation in Olympia. That’s because the GOP has become the official majority party without the actual majority of votes for most of that time, and to preserve that majority, they’ll have to schedule votes around the Trump nominees’ schedules.

The situation also raises questions of the constitutionality of state Senator also working for the administration.

On Monday, Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, began a 120-day temporary job as communications manager for President Donald Trump’s transition team overhauling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Ericksen plans to fly back-and-forth between Washington D.C. and Olympia to hold both his senate seat and his temporary EPA job. News reports from Washington D.C. said some transition leaders might end up with permanent jobs in the Trump administration.

However, Washington’s constitution says a state legislator cannot simultaneously hold a legislative seat and a federal civil job.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said Ericksen researched that issue prior to accepting the Trump post, with Ericksen being told that he can do both. Schoesler said the GOP did not check with the Washington Attorney General’s Office — run by a Democrat — because he contended that office moves very slowly. A spokesman for Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the office wouldn’t opine on the issue in the press.

Meanwhile, Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, resigned Tuesday to become a special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in Washington D.C. Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is Trump’s nominee for that post.

And on Tuesday, Democratic legislative leaders claimed that Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, has been flying back and forth between Washington state and Washington talk with the Trump administration. On Tuesday, Republican legislative leaders did not deny that speculation.

However, Baumgartner was in Olympia Tuesday. Baumgartner said he has not flown to Washington D.C. and has not interviewed personally or by telephone with the Trump administration for a job. He recently cleaned up his Twitter account — noted for some bombastic language— saying that was routine maintenance.

What all this means is that the Republicans’ 25-24 majority in the Senate has dropped to a 24-24 tie until Dansel’s replacement is appointed by the county commissioners of five northeast Washington counties that his district covers. With some hustle, that could happen in less than two weeks. Dansel’s replacement is legally required to be a Republican.

Until Damsel is replaced and whenever Ericksen is in Washington D.C., the majority Republicans will have 23 senators to 24 minority Democrats. However, the Republicans control the Rules Committee, which handles the traffic of bills going to the Senate floor.

The bottom line is that the Republicans still ultimately control the Senate’s agenda. However, anything controversial will likely wait until late in the session when the GOP has 25 solid votes lined up. The Washington legislature will be working on Trump time.

Sen. Mark Liias, D-Lynnwood said the majority of the Senate’s votes are on noncontroversial bills, which will likely take up the next few weeks — with the major controversial legislation coming in March or April — or in a special session beyond the current 120-day regular session.

The biggest controversies will be how to pay to comply with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling that the state is seriously deficient in educating students in Grades K-3. The Legislature has seriously lagged in meeting that obligation. Democrats have proposed tax increases and closing tax breaks — and Republicans strongly opposed either measure.

The two sides have deadlocked on this issue for four years — with some last-minute compromises made in 2013 and 2015 just prior to partial government shutdowns because budgets were not approved.

Meanwhile, Schoesler has not yet talked with Ericksen — who is currently in Washington D.C. — about when Ericksen will fly to Olympia to tackle his state senator duties. Ericksen is chairman of the Senate’s Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee. That committee has canceled two days of hearings this week.

Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island said: “It’s going to be hard for Senator Ericksen to do both jobs. … I’d be asking him for his resignation.”

Ericksen, Dansel and Baumgartner all belong to the hard-right wing of the GOP Senate caucus. Ericksen and Baumgartner have been vocal leaders in opposing many Democratic measures, especially those by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Baumgartner has led the GOP charge that the Washington Supreme Court cannot tell what the Legislature can do — referencing the court fining the Legislature l$100,000 a day for not complying with the 2102 school fix-it ruling.

As chairman of the Senate’s Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, Ericksen has been the leading opponent of Gov. Jay Inslee’s efforts to deal with carbon pollution and climate change. He also has been the leading advocate for the oil industry in the Legislature.

In 2015, Ericksen charged that Inslee wanted to drive gasoline prices up to $4 a gallon to support his efforts to trim carbon emissions and to make biofuels more competitive with petroleum. At that time, Inslee’s office pooh-poohed those charges.

In that same year, Ericksen’s committee hosted a long briefing from the Heartland Institute’s science director, Jay Lehr, who cited rising temperatures on Mars, Jupiter and the Neptunian moon Triton to show that global warming on Earth is not manmade. Founded in 1984, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute receives a significant amount of its donations from oil companies. In the 1990s, it teamed with a tobacco company in an effort to prove that secondhand smoke is not a health hazard. Today, the Institute is a leading skeptic about global warming.

For the 2017 session, Ericksen filed a bill dubbed the “Preventing Economic Disruption Act” to increase penalties for people blocking roads and railroads to businesses. That bill has not had a committee hearing yet.

In a December press release, Ericksen pointed to two 2016 incidents for why he filed the bill. In Olympia, protesters blocked a railroad to stop oil drilling equipment from being moved. In Skagit County, protesters blocked trains headed to two northwestern Washington oil refineries.

On Monday, the Trump administration announced that Ericksen and controversial former Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, would be leaders on the 120-day transition team at the EPA. The Trump administration’s game plan for the EPA includes slashing its budget, ending EPA-funded scientific research and other overhauls.

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