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Telling All of Nothing

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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

You’d have a hard time finding anyone more skilled than Doug Ericksen in turning away a question while making you think he’s answered it.

Constituents packed the auditorium at Meridian High School over the weekend, demanding to know about the state Senator’s many absences from legislative sessions and his simultaneous job with the federal government in Washington, DC. They left knowing little more than when they came, but remarking on Ericksen’s willingness to speak openly and frankly about issues. 

A state employee asked when the Senator’s going to resign from one of his two taxpayer- supported jobs, “so you can carry out your responsibilities.”

The responsibilities are being carried out very well, Ericksen responded. Doing two jobs well is not unheard of, he said.

“My wife can do eight jobs at once.”

The Senator declined to reveal anything about the federal part of his jobs—how much he’s paid, or what he’s paid to do. In a brief session with reporters after the constituent meeting, he suggested that he doesn’t know how much he earns, and that he may not be paid at all.

Question:  Did you figure out how much you’re being paid?

“Not very much. I’ll tell you this, I’m losing money on the deal, flying back and forth, trying to find a place to live in DC.”

Question: Every working American knows how much he or she is getting paid. It’s something you can find out in about 90 seconds…

“It’s very unique situation, John. Being on the transition team for the President of the United States is very unique. So, we’re working our way through all that stuff. I’d do it for free, you know. I basically have to lose money on the frickin’ deal.”

Question: What is it you do for the Environmental Protection Agency, day to day?

“I’m on the executive board of the transition team for EPA.”

Question: What does that mean?

“Well, we work with career professionals for the new administrator, working to keep the lights on and working with all the career professionals that are there.”

Question: Does that mean you’re the press guy for Administrator Scott Pruitt?

“It means I’m the communications lead for the transition team.”

Question: What does the communications lead for the transition team do?

“Lots. Lots.”

The 42nd Legislative District spreads across Northern Whatcom County from Blaine to Barron, and from the Canadian border to the middle of Bellingham. It’s home turf for the county’s conservative and Tea Party Republicans. But at Ericksen’s town hall meeting they seemed outnumbered, or at least out-shouted, by angry liberals. The Senator asked them not to heckle their fellow citizens, no matter how much they might disagree with what was being said.

“Boo me,” he said, and they did. “Don’t boo each other.”

Uniformed Sheriff’s deputies and well-muscled peacekeepers in blue T-shirts roamed the hall but had little to do, no one to remove. 

Relaxed in work day jeans and cowboy boots, Ericksen spoke smoothly of legislative issues including a controversial measure he sponsored. The Preventing Economic Disruptions bill would make it a felony to be part of a civil protest that interferes with commerce or transportation. He linked it to a congressional act, popular with progressives, meant to protect women seeking abortions. That was the model for his bill, he told the town hall crowd.

“You have the right to protest, but you have no right to prevent someone from entering a clinic,” he said. “I don’t believe you have a constitutional right to stand on a highway and block traffic.”

Ericksen’s bill died in the State Senate’s Law and Justice Committee.

“We spent two hours talking about the state issues that matter to Whatcom County—jobs, the state budget, our efforts to boost education funding without raising taxes, and what we’re doing to fix a state Supreme Court decision that threatens the right of rural property owners to drill wells and obtain building permits,’ Ericksen described the town hall in his own email to voters. “The conversation, spirited at times, was a model example of how people with different political outlooks can have productive discussions.”

Only two days before the town hall, a group of Ericksen’s constituents had filed a recall petition in Superior Court. They sought to remove him from his senate seat, for missing legislative sessions and committee meetings in January and February.

The recall effort quickly failed. Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis found that no law says our legislators have to do any particular thing, or anything at all. They don’t even have to be in Olympia, not even in the state, in order to draw their pay, currently $45,474 per year.

They are required to be there, however, in order to draw an expense allowance of $120 for each day they’re on the job, meant to defray the cost of traveling to Olympia and sheltering and feeding themselves on those unhappy occasions when no lobbyist is nearby with an urge to buy someone a steak and bourbon.

The group backing the recall says Ericksen claimed the expense allowance for at least three days when he wasn’t there.  His attorney, Jackson Maynard, told the judge that the senator claimed the allowance—mistakenly—on one of those three days, then paid it back. He said he had not yet checked with his client about the other two instances.

Michael Shepard of Bellingham, who brought the recall petition to court, says his group may take the expense allowance complaint to the Legislative Ethics Board. It has authority to reprimand a legislator, but little more.

Shepard acknowledges that it’s hard to prove whether or not the senator has visited the Capitol on any given day.

“We’ve asked his office repeatedly for his meeting schedule,” Shepard said. “We can’t get it. We even tried under the Freedom of Information Act, but there’s been no response.

“Our method now is to check TVW’s daily videotapes of committee meetings and floor sessions, to see if he shows up in the video.” TVW is Olympia’s public access channel.

But even if he doesn’t, is there a case for recall? Not really, Judge Montoya-Lewis observed.

“I don’t think there’s anything the court can find here that they (legislators) have a legal responsibility to attend a certain number of meetings,” the judge said in her ruling. “There’s no standard that’s laid out in the statutes. There’s no description. There’s no case law that indicates what discharge of his duties under his oath of office means,” she said.

Our state’s constitution does pay some attention to the issue of serving two masters, one in each Washington, and some Ericksen critics have wondered why the recall group didn’t go there.

Article II, Section 14 says no person is eligible to be a member of the legislature if they “hold a civil office with the United States or any other power.”

The section goes on to say that if a member of the legislature is elected or appointed to any federal office “his acceptance thereof shall vacate his seat.”

The section was recited to Senator Ericksen during his town hall gathering. He was prepared.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled on that back in 1936, he informed the audience. The judges decided it applied only to full time, permanent jobs—not the 120-day assignment to which Ericksen commutes.

The senator was asked about complaints from colleagues, who say Ericksen’s absences have created chaos in the state Senate schedule, with bills being held up pending Ericksen’s availability.

“Not true,” he told reporters. “Kevin Ranker has missed more votes than I have,” Ericksen said of the 40th District Democrat.

Question: Has it ever happened that things come to a stop while they wait to see if you’re going to be there?

“There are 25 members in the majority coalition, and they all have lives.”

Question: But your situation is a bit different this year?”

“There are different people gone on any given day. So it was inaccurate for him to say that, and Kevin’s being very partisan.”

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