Lawmakers speed away from special treatment

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OLYMPIA — I’m actually starting to feel sorry for members of the state Legislature.

Like other politicians, they have never been at the top of the public-opinion food chain, susceptible as they are to accusations of greed and placing re-election over public good. Elected officials are both a convenient straight man for cartoonists and a cheap punch line for comedians.

Not that any of this is new. Will Rogers made a living making fun of electeds during the Great Depression, saying, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.”

But Rogers also said, “Everything is funny as long as it’s happening to someone else.”

I am now beginning to realize the psychological effect all this joking and criticizing is having on our politicians. I mean, what have we turned them into?

A few weeks ago, News Tribune reporter Melissa Santos got the State Patrol to acknowledge that it directs its troopers to let speeding legislators go with a “have a nice day” and no ticket. Apparently the patrol’s reading of a clause in the state constitution, meant to keep the executive branch from using police powers to prevent legislators from getting to the capital, covers speeding tickets.

The underlying principle dates back to 17th century England when kings sometimes resorted to arrest to keep opponents and critics from reaching Parliament (though I’m not sure speeding was the provocation).

Statistics are not kept of tickets not given in Washington state. A patrol spokesman guessed they probably could be counted in a handful per year.

Still, the story amplified a familiar narrative, one aimed more at Congress than state legislatures, that politicians are exempt and immune from the laws they pass (even though they rarely are).

Since the story appeared, lawmakers have begun calling reporters to admit to tickets for speeding. Apparently the years of emotional abuse we have heaped on them has created people who would rather admit to exceeding speed limits and endangering themselves and others than acknowledge that they get special treatment.

Seattle Democratic Sen. Adam Kline, the former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he didn’t know he was immune and could have saved himself some money in fines and insurance increases had he identified himself after getting caught speeding. Rep. Steve Kirby, a Tacoma Democrat, even copped to speeding through a school zone.

Another Tacoma lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Laurie Jinkins, said she and her colleagues warn each other not to tell troopers they are legislators, fearing that public knowledge of a lawmaker seeking the privilege is worse politically than having to cough up a few hundred bucks.

Insisting on a ticket, however, isn’t a solution. Santos quoted Medina Rep. Ross Hunter, the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, saying he once insisted that a trooper give him a ticket and was still let go.

Which means lawmakers who don’t want to be accused of getting special treatment must keep their titles a secret and hope the trooper doesn’t recognize them. Legislators pulled to the side of the freeway are now forced to indignantly tell the trooper, “Do you know who I’m not?”

In a related symptom of this abuse-induced dysfunction, we have the Morton Rule, named for former Sen. Bob Morton. The Kettle Falls Republican wanted the state to improve lobbyist reporting forms so it would be clear to his constituents that while he accepted free food from lobbyists with issues before the Legislature, he only ordered oyster stew. The rule would require lobbyists to divide the check, not so each lawmaker could pay their fair share but so that those who only accepted a small bit of largesse could be distinguished from those who ordered the lobster.

So again, we’ve now got our legislators so afraid of being scorned that they even worry about what they order when they’re out on the town on the arm of a lobbyist.

This trend only goes so far, though. It still hasn’t led to an epidemic of our elected lawmakers actually picking up a check.

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