Minority rule sounds bad enough in theory: undemocratic, unconstitutional, and unfair. But in practice, its ramifications become even worse.

If Washington voters approve BP-funded and Tim Eyman-sponsored I-1053 in November, just 17 members of the Washington Senate will hold veto power over closing tax loopholes and raising revenue.

Who are those 17?

In principle, it could be any 17 senators, but in reality, it would be the 17 most conservative members—the minority most opposed to closing loopholes and raising revenue. (For political junkies, I include a list at the end of the post.)

That’s a group far to the right of the state’s political center of gravity. Judging from their voting records, they are twice as conservative as the typical member of the state senate. All white, mostly male, and mostly from outlying places like Ritzville and Moses Lake, they are also mostly Republican. My argument here is not partisan, however: They are not all Republicans, and not all Republicans are among them.

The 17’s philosophy is as legitimate a part of public discourse as anyone’s, but no one should think that they are simply a few degrees right of center on the state’s political continuum. They are a distinct ideological minority, polarized away from the governing coalition in Olympia.

Minority Rule WCV and WCU chart

(Larger version of chart here.)

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  • Consider their voting records. Several statewide organizations assemble legislative scorecards by selecting a set of indicative votes and using them to give legislators points. A legislator who always voted against a group’s recommendations would get a “0,” and one who always voted with the group would get a “100.”

    The chart above shows current members of the senate by their lifetime ratings from the right-wing Washington Conservative Union (on the horizontal scale) and from the environmentalist Washington Conservation Voters (on the vertical scale). A point in the center of the graph would be a senator who had a score of 50 from each group. A point in the upper left would be a senator with a high score from conservation advocates but a low score from the conservative group. Conversely, a dot in the lower right reflects a senator who scored well on the conservatives’ scorecard but poorly on the conservationists’.

    There are seventeen dots in the lower right, all of them between 80 and 100 on the Conservative Union’s scale and none of them higher than 43 on the Conservation Voters’ scale. And there’s hardly anyone in the middle of the chart. Most of the senators—25 of them—are in the upper left section of the chart—not very conservative and fairly conservationist. (The chart also illustrates how deeply polarized Washington politics are.)

    Under majority rule, you would expect public policy to reflect the ideological middle ground of the senate—the point (marked in the chart) at which half of senators are to the right, half to the left, half above and half below. In this case, moderate state senator Chris Marr (D—Spokane) is the closest to the middle ground, so you would expect the senate to pass laws aligned with Senator Marr’s middle-of-the-road philosophy. I-1053’s imposition of minority rule would move power far to the lower right of the chart, making someone like conservative Senator Tim Sheldon (D—Potlatch) the senate’s pivotal vote.

    Minority Rule WCA and WCU chart

    (Larger version of chart here.)

    This second chart substitutes voting scores from the Children’s Alliance of Washington, which advocates for child welfare policies and programs, for the Washington Conservation Voters’ scores in the first chart.

    The pattern is similar. The same 17 senators are clumped together on the lower right (scored very high by conservatives and very low by the Children’s Alliance). Meanwhile, the majority of senators are in the upper left (with low scores from the conservatives and high scores from the children’s advocates). Again, minority rule would move the chamber’s pivot point (roughly) from the moderate Marr to the conservative Sheldon—a long distance in political values.

    But wait. These two charts aren’t specific to the subject matter of I-1053, which is about closing tax loopholes and raising revenue, not our natural heritage or child welfare. I’ve been using Washington Conservative Union, Washington Conservation Voters and Children’s Alliance scores as proxies for political values.

    Are they good proxies? Do these other legislative scorecards align with senators’ voting records on tax loopholes and new revenue? Unfortunately, no one assembles a state voting scorecard solely on revenue questions, but I did a short-hand version myself. I selected what the nonpartisan Project Vote Smart listed as the three most critical revenue votes in the 2010 legislature, when the state faced a second year of record revenue shortfalls. The final state budget closed those shortfalls mostly by slashing state services, such as healthcare for low-income families. It also raised a modest amount of new revenue by closing tax loopholes on out-of-state businesses that operate in Washington and by raising taxes on—or ending tax exemptions for—cigarettes, bottled water, candy, and soda pop.

    The three senate votes in my short-hand scorecard were:

    1. HB 2493, which raised cigarette taxes to prevent even steeper cuts in basic healthcare services than were already planned.
    2. SB 6143, which closed tax loopholes for out-of-state businesses and other businesses and ended tax exemptions or levied excises on bottled water, candy and chewing gum, soda pop, and various tobacco products such as snuff.
    3. SB 6130, which temporarily suspended I-960, the minority-rule initiative passed narrowly by voters in 2007.

    Did 2010 votes on closing tax loopholes and raising new revenue correlate with the voting scores from the advocacy organizations? Does the pattern look the same? Yes.

    Minority Rule WCV and Revenue Votes Chart<!–

    (Larger version of chart here.)

    In the chart, the same seventeen senators (in the lower right) voted against all three revenue measures. All have lifetime conservatism voting scores of 81 or higher and lifetime conservation voting scores of 43 or lower. With the exception of two others who joined the group of 17, all other senators voted “yes” on at least one of these revenue measures, and all have conservatism scores of 51 or lower and conservation scores of 49 or higher.

    Seventeen senators is all I-1053 requires to block revenue measures, and the state senate has 17 who voted against all revenue measures—even in an unprecedented fiscal downturn. They also vote overwhelmingly against the recommendations of environmental and child-welfare advocates.

    This group presents a strikingly different ideological profile than the rest of the senate. Their average lifetime conservatism voting score is 90, more than twice the average lifetime score of all state senators, which is 43. Their average lifetime conservation voting score is 25; the senate average is 62.Their average child welfare voting score is 52, compared with 79 for the senate overall.

    They are a group apart, these seventeen. They are radically to the right of their peers. And I-1053 would put them in charge. That’s what minority rule looks like.

    . . . .

    Notes and data: Here is the list of senators, with their voting scores and records. The 17 are bolded.

    Senator WCU WCV
    CAW Revenue Score
    Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside 96 10 36 3
    Val Stevens, R-Arlington 98 13 50 3
    Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls 94 15 50 3
    Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville 96 15 43 3
    Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane Valley 89 17 50 3
    Jerome Delvin, R-Richland 90 17 50 3
    Janéa Holmquist, R-Moses Lake 93 17 46 3
    Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla 94 22 42 3
    Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood 83 23 64 3
    Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee 91 26 57 3
    Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield 93 26 33 3
    Pam Roach, R-Auburn 81 26 57 3
    Curtis King, R-Yakima
    29 50 3
    Don Benton, R-Vancouver 83 30 71 3
    Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch 84 33 71 3
    Randi Becker, R-Eatonville
    36 57 3
    Dale Brandland, R-Bellingham 86 43 54 3
    Dan Swecker, R-Rochester 87 43 57 3
    Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley 85 43 57 3
    Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond 14 49 86 0
    Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam 51 54 100 0
    Rodney Tom, D-Medina 34 73 100 1
    Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island 29 74 100 0
    Jean Berkey, D-Everett 16 75 91 0
    Chris Marr, D-Spokane 21 78 86 2
    Paull Shin, D-Edmonds 23 78 93 1
    Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens 7 78 93 2
    Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup 17 79 100 0
    Randy Gordon, D-Bellevue 80 0
    Claudia Kauffman, D-Kent 7 82 80 2
    Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor 20 83 86 2
    Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge 9 85 93 0
    Rosa Franklin, D-South Tacoma 13 88 100 0
    Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle 10 88 85 0
    Margarita Prentice, D-Renton 9 89 93 0
    Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way 17 89 100 0
    Lisa J. Brown, D-Spokane 7 90 100 0
    Karen Keiser, D-Kent 7 90 100 0
    Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma 7 91 100 0
    Kevin Ranker, D-San Juans 91 100 0
    Eric Oemig, D-Kirkland 7 91 100 0
    Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell 9 92 100 0
    Joe McDermott, D-West Seattle 93 100 0
    Ed Murray, D-Seattle 7 93 100 0
    Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park 3 94 100 0
    Karen Fraser, D-Olympia 8 95 100 0
    Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle 3 96 100 0
    Adam Kline, D-Seattle 6 96 100 0
    Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver 9 97 92 1

    The Washington Conservative Union’s (WCU) most-recent scorecard covers the 2007 legislative session and the previous four sessions. Consequently, it excludes more
    -recent votes and five senators elected to the state senate after 2007. To rank all senators in the list above, therefore, I relied on the
    Washington Conservation Voters’ (WCV) lifetime ratings. The Children’s Alliance of Washington (CAW) scores listed here are only from the 2009 legislative session. The Revenue Score is the number of “no” votes (or, strictly speaking, not “yes” votes, as some senators do not vote, which has the same effect as voting “no”) on three critical revenue measures (HB 2493, SB 6143, and SB 6130) in the 2010 legislative session.