Lawmakers wrong to use budget to pressure attorney general

The attorney general is independently elected and has the authority to file a legal challenge on behalf of the state.

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State Attorney General Rob McKenna might be wrong in his assertion that federal mandates included in the health-care reform legislation are unconstitutional. Then again, he might be right. Legal experts, to this point, are split on the issue.

But it is clear to us that as the independently elected attorney general, McKenna has the authority to join the state in a legal challenge of the law without consulting the governor or the Legislature.

It is equally clear the governor and some lawmakers were out of line (as well as being petty) in threatening to cut funding for the Attorney General's Office simply because they don't agree with his decision to have Washington state join the lawsuit with a dozen other states.

Unfortunately, lawmakers and the governor took a step last week to make their threat a reality.

The governor's budget office, at the request of legislators, has now subjected McKenna's office to a freeze on funding state contracts. It means the office can no longer pay for private attorneys, expert witnesses, mediators and others to help on cases without getting separate approval from the governor's office.

Ironically, the Attorney General's Office was awarded an exemption to that funding freeze just a few days earlier because it was seen as important to the work of the office.

The News Tribune of Tacoma reported that Rep. Kelli Linville, chairwoman of the state House budget committee, asked for the contract authority to be pulled and is among those considering further budget restrictions. The Bellingham Democrat is upset because McKenna has gone counter to the wishes of the Legislature.

Is Linville serious? Would she hold that same view if the Republicans controlled the Legislature and a Democrat was the attorney general?

Unlikely. Situational public policy is almost always flawed and often dangerous.

At least one Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina, gets it.

"There are a lot of court decisions that I don't agree with that the Washington state Supreme Court has made recently. Does that mean I stop funding them?" asked Tom, who is vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The separation of powers is an important check and balance of our state government.

Gov. Chis Gregorire, as a three-term attorney general, should know that. Separation of powers ensures that no one person or group has ultimate control of government.

In addition, the independence of the office should allow it to react quickly, which could be the difference in winning or losing a case.

The voters put their trust in McKenna twice. If they don't like what he is doing now, they don't have to re-elect him.

The governor and Legislature don't -- and shouldn't -- have the authority to overrule the attorney general nor should they use their budget power as a way to control that independent office.

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