Despite their heavy majority, the Democrats in Olympia, wary of scaring off mainstream voters by overreaching, have tabled a number of liberal legislative items this session: a cap on payday-loan interest rates, a bill closing the gun-show loophole, regulations requiring disclosure from pharmaceutical-industry lobbyists, a hard cap on CO2 emissions, a cap on condo conversions, a bill protecting student free-speech rights, and a comprehensive family leave bill.
It wasn't until last week, however, that Democratic caucus members rebelled and started grousing publicly. The final straw? House Speaker Frank Chopp (D-43, Seattle) effectively overruled both a 30–19 Dem vote in the senate and a Democratic majority vote in the house judiciary committee by killing a Democratic bill that would have given homebuyers legal recourse against irresponsible homebuilders. The word among disgruntled Democrats: Chopp was kissing up to the most powerful and conservative lobbying group in Olympia, the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW).
The Olympian broke the news on Saturday that the sponsor of the house version of the bill, Rep. Brendan Williams (D-22, Olympia), was threatening to resign.
Meanwhile, I talked to the bill's original sponsor, Senator Brian Weinstein (D-45, Mercer Island). Sen. Weinstein began his comments by criticizing the BIAW, which doesn't like the bill because they believe it will increase insurance rates for homebuilders by giving homeowners new legal standing. Weinstein scoffed at the complaint, telling me, "Lawyers can get sued. Doctors can get sued. Anybody can get sued. Homebuilders are the only people in this state that can't get sued. Aren't they willing to stand by their work?" (Obviously, anyone can sue a homebuilder, but Weinstein's bill would mandate warranties against defects in materials and workmanship (for 2 years) and structural defects (for 10 years), which would give homebuyers legal recourse they don't currently have.
Weinstein ultimately reserved his harshest words for House Speaker Chopp. "This is democracy at its worst. Here is one guy that overruled 30 Democratic senators and the Democratic house judiciary committee. There's no point in doing the fact-finding, holding eight hours of hearings, of doing the right thing, if a dictator can just pull the rug out from under you."
Indeed, Weinstein told me flat out that he now believes Rep. Chopp had a deal worked out with the BIAW to table the bill all along.
That'd be hard to prove. However, a check of recent reports filed by BIAW lobbyist Tom McCabe shows that Chopp is cozy with the BIAW: A $124 steak dinner with Chopp and Rep. Judy Clibborn was one of just two wining-and-dining expenses on McCabe's report.
Weinstein's conclusion: Chopp doesn't want to alienate the BIAW because he wants the Democrats to keep their majority, "and," he adds derisively, "not do anything with it."