Merit System in Washington Chopped Off

July 16, 2008

As you know, if you’ve been reading this a while, there was a bill last session of Washington’s legislature to adopt the merit system for the selection of judges to the Court of Appeals and the State Supreme Court. This is the system advocated diligently by Sandra Day O’Connor to eliminate the influence of deep pockets on judges’ decisions and to assure that the most qualified people are appointed to the bench.

The bill was sponsored by Jay Rodue, a Republican from the 5th District, Sherry Appleton, a Democrat from the 23rd District, Helen Sommers, from the 36th District. Here is a copy of the final form of the bill. The house report explained generally how it would work.

The bill made it to Frank Chopp’s Rules Committee, a death chamber for bills that do not advance the interests of the most powerful lobbies. He predictably killed the bill.

The people who sponsored the bill deserve accolades for wanting to improve our judicial system for the sake of the people here and not any special interest. The members of the House Rules Committee are listed here.

Our legislators need to know that we care about having the best court system that we can muster. I’ll write more when the legislature is in session.

County’s Hands Tied on Excessive Forest Clearing

July 9, 2008

RCW 82.02.020 is an example of the ways in which the stong hand of special interest lobbies in Olympia affect folks in Washington. This law says in pertinent part that

no county, city, town, or other municipal corporation shall impose any tax, fee, or charge, either direct or indirect, on the construction or reconstruction of residential buildings, commercial buildings, industrial buildings, or on any other building or building space or appurtenance thereto, or on the development, subdivision, classification, or reclassification of land.

Meanwhile King County adopted its Clearing and Grading Critical Areas Ordinance in 2004 pursuant to the Growth Management Act (RCW 36.70A.060(2)) which required it to adopt regulations to protect its critical assets. Generally speaking the ordinance prohibited clearing more than 50% of rural lots with a number of qualifications and exceptions.

Before adopting this regulation the County undertook a number of studies and consulted with experts to verify that excessive clearing had negative impacts on stream health, wildlife, and critical aquifer recharge areas in the County.

The ordinance was challenged by a property rights groups that contended that the blanket prohibition against clearing was an improper indirect charge under RCW 82.02.020.

The County said that this was not a tax but a justified regulation, presenting 24 journal articles and several experts who identified the harm sought to be avoided and vouched for the efficacy of the regulation in terms of avoiding the harm.

The trial court sided with the County but the Court of Appeals did not. In Citizens Alliance for Property Rights v. Ron Sims

the court held that the bar against excessive clearing was prohibited by statute. The decision seems quite sound to me, relying on well established pro-development case law. Without disregarding precedent, the court could do little else. (Personally I would like to see the court start whittling away at the existing law.)

What is important here, I believe is that local decision regarding the environment, urban sprawl, habitat, and water issues are fairly commonly thwarted by the state legislature which in turn is rather shockingly influenced by special interests, particularly the building industry which pushed through the legislation giving developers a preferred tax status.

Washington Becomes a Lead State in Cracking Down on Foreclsore Scams

March 7, 2008
I almost missed it! This is great day because the legislature passed last night the equity skimming bill recommended by the Washington State Attorney General in January of this year. In two months the legislature passed a comprehensive bill specifically addressing foreclosure rescue scams. Representative McIntire called my this morning on his way back to Olympia from Seattle. He said that the yesterday’s session did not end until 1:30 this morning. The time was apparently very well spent.

This bill, HB 2791 , strikes right at the heart of the frauds that have been perpetrated on homeowners, making these scams felonies, as they should be. People who p[resent themselves to homeowners as consultants for foreclosures and default ed home loans are now subject to disclosure requirements and well articulated standards of behavior. The “savior” is prevented from absconding with more than 18% of the equity.

I will provide a more detailed discussion of the bill at a later date. When not impeded by special interests the Washington legislature is capable of very speedy action. With this bill (assuming the governor signs it, which is a safe assumption) Washington become one of the lead states in criminalizing this reprehensible behavior and regulating the permissible scope of legitimate activity.

Frank Chopp

March 2, 2008

With a super majority (62-36 in the state house)  Frank Chopp, the Democratic Speaker of the House, seems to be more interested in unifying with Republicans than unifying his party.  While the Democratic Party is criticized for in fighting at the expense of making progress, Mr. Chopp is committed to bringing the eastern half of the state into his embrace.   With Obama-like phrases, Chapp proposes to find common ground with the perspective of the residents of the eastern part of the state.  This means embracing Republican agenda, which seems like an odd orientation for a party that had claimed to be prevented by the Republican Party from accomplishing things and sold this to the electorate sufficiently to win a super majority.  Chopp’s genuflection to the East seems the like the functional equivalent of a deadlocked legislature.

Last year Chopp turned his back on his constituency ( a 73% majority of which favored a waterfront tunnel) and environmentalists  when he adamantly  championed rebuilding and expanding the Alaska Way viaduct.  He proposed doubling it in breadth and capping it, a vision that that revolted architects such as Peter Steinbrueck, who saw a wasteland created at street level.

Chopp’s epiphany about unification of the state is a fairly recent occurrence, as he had a well-deserved reputation as a progressive leader.  I truly hate to sound skeptical but I can’t help but wonder whether Chopp’s swivel to the right is not so much a hope-infused rapture as it is a product of catering to special interests.  It certainly accomplishes the same thing.  He has thwarted no-cost progressive bills that were against the interest of his campaign donors.  He killed a bill to put a cap on the interest rates of payday loans and the MoneyTree founders were contributors to his campaign.  Last year he killed (and so far has delayed) a homebuyer’s protection bill that was actively opposed by the Building Industry Association of Washington.  He killed a bill that would have put corporate tax breaks in the budget as expenditures to highlight the cost to the government of these corporate welfare items.  He opposed requiring the disclosure of pharmaceutical-industry lobbyists.  He claims to be keeping focus on healthcare but prevented full funding for health-care workers in nursing homes.  This year among other things he killed a bill to reduce the influence of special interests in the selection of judges.

The strategic explanation for this veer to the right is that he wants to avoid a Republican sweep into office, such as occurred in 1994, and to nurture Democrat’s supermajority.  He apparently attributes the 1994 collapse at the polls to an overly progressive agenda by the Democrats in the sessions that preceded the election coup.  His apologists say that he is intent on keeping the progressive wing of the party in check while keeping legislation “mainstream”  to promote the interests of the Democratic Party in the 2008 election.

This pragmatic and high sounding purpose, however, does not explain what is actually going on.  He opposes transparency in government, and actively opposes bills which are disfavored by special interests.  He demonstrates a belief that the Democratic Party prospers when special interests profit, even when they profit at the expense of consumers.  This is not a “mainstream” precept; it is merely protecting the status quo.

Discussing the State Budget

March 2, 2008

Are you as confused as me by discussions about the state budget?  This year’s budget seems to be the lightning rod in the gubernatorial race.  The Seattle Times checked in saying the budget was too fat, pointing to the legislature’s lunatic desire to bring teachers’ salaries closer to the national average.  The Tacoma News Tribune called the house budget a “doozy” and portrayed state representatives as irresponsibly disregarding economic forecasts.  Bill Hinkle, a Republican from Cle Ellum, encapsulated the views of these dailies when he found biblical precedent and foresaw seven years of fiscal pestulence.

I find it difficult to assess these dire warnings and calls of alarm.  First how on earth can I evaluate economic forecasts?  I know that the Seattle Times called Gregoire’s previous budgets crazy and irresponsible because of economic forecasts but these budgets worked out wonderfully by all accounts.  The Times — obviously inspired by a sense of dignity and humility — called the success of Gregoire’s budgets blind luck, so the Times is right even when its wrong.

I’ve never been able to make heads or tails of of the state budget.  It’s numbingly long, loaded with indecipherable jargon and altogether daunting.  This has made me reticent about entering into discussions about the budget; I do not have any sort of picture of what it is.

Perhaps tiring of being pilloried by platitudes, the legislature is (I think) about to pass a bill which should make the budget more accessible to everyone.  SB 6816 passed the senate without a dissenting vote and on Thursday  was unanimously approved by the House Appropriations Committee.  This bill would create an accessible, searchable website containing the budget.  Eight states already have such a thing and several others are moving toward it.  The Washington Policy Center has a great article about this.

Amending the Law to Make it Harder to Stop Foreclosure Scams.

February 26, 2008

Here’s one that is sailing through the state legislature without discussion and under everyone’s radar.  Today the senate had a public hear to amend the deed of trust act so as to make it easier for trustees to conduct foreclosure sales when they are disputed.  Substitute Senate Bill 5378 removes a deed of trust trustee’s (the one who does the foreclosure) fiduciary duty to the owner and frees the trustee from having to field phone calls by saying requests for payoffs must be in writing.  Not only that but by law the trustee would not have to respond to a written request sooner than 10 days from receipt.  Not only that but the new law would make it clear that the trustee is under no obligation to discontinue a sale for any reason whatsoever.  Finally the owner, or anyone else, trying to stop the sale is required to put up security for damages, attorneys fees and costs.  This of course is a crippling requirement for someone going through a foreclosure.

That’s one way to stop a scandal: Deny access to the courts by prohibitive procedural and substantive legal requirements for getting a hearing.  This approach is reminiscent of the legislature’s answer to the condominium scandal, where developers were using materials that after a few years became defective and required replacement. The legislatures answer was to pass a law that said as to condominiums only if the problem does not show up within 4 years of the completion of the building, the owners have no recourse against anyone.

Substitute senate bill 5378  is skipping through the legislature without any debate.  In the area of real estate scandals the Washington legislature has developed a very clear pattern of resolving these things by curbing the rights of the victims.

This bill is sponsored by senators Weinstein, Kline and  Rockefeller.  What exactly is their connection with the banking industry?

HB 2150; The Merit System for Washington at Last!

January 22, 2008

Apparently there are others who are appalled at the special interest money pouring into judicial elections, elections for judges who are supposed to be impartial. The primary purpose of the money that is lavished on judicial campaigns is to install judges who will not restrain the effects of the laws that lobbyists push through the state legislature.   Special interests, by their attack campaigns on sitting judges and financing the campaigns of their acolytes seek to implant favoritism in the courts. The special interests that lobby their bills through the state legislature seek to have those same bills, when they become laws, reviewed by judges who are their delegates.  Thus, these special interests are able to have laws passed by the legislature, then reviewed and interpreted by a court that is predisposed to support the interests behind the laws and which depends on the support of those special interests at the next judicial election.

This is a grievous distortion of the system the our forefathers envisioned.  Such influence by special interests was abhorrent to Alexander Hamilton who viewed an independent judicial branch as essential to  the protection of the rights of individuals from the “ill humors of designing men” and the minority party from the oppression of easily influenced popular sentiment.  Lack of an independent judiciary would threaten the constitution and imperil our form of government Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper No. 77.

Judges are supposed to different than congressional representatives in that our system of government depends on an independent judicial branch, free — to the extent possible — from the influence of lobbyists, special interests and generally the sway of money. That was the founding father’s purpose in making federal judges appointees for life. In Washington a State Supreme Court judge serves a 6 year term, a tenure short enough for the judge’s decisions to be influenced by concern for re-election.

Apparently I am not the only person who sees this as a threat to the notion that our government, through its check and balances between the three branches, was intended to be fundamentally fair. Washington State representatives Rodne, Sullivan, Sommers and Appleton have sponsored a bill to address this corruption of our system of government: HB 2150.