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Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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March 10, 2008 1:18 PM

Liberal bloggers unhappy with Demo speaker

Posted by David Postman

I have done little reporting on this year’s legislative session. The presidential primary season kept my attention focused elsewhere. But with the Legislature set to adjourn Thursday, I figure it's now or never.

In one respect I see little has changed since in the nearly year since the 2007 Legislature adjourned. A homeowner’s bill of rights is apparently dead in the House - just as dead as it was last year.

This is a bill pushed by Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, and opposed by homebuilders and, it seems, by House Speaker Frank Chopp. Chopp at least doesn’t think it’s yet time to pass the bill that would allow buyers of new homes to sue for defects.

I’m not shocked by this. Last year Chopp only gave the slightest indication that something might happen this year.

"I'm suggesting we work through the interim" and come back in the next session or two with a bill that could be passed unanimously, he said.

It will be “or two” at least. And that has liberal Democrats ticked off at Chopp. The primary rouser of the rabble has been The Stranger’s Josh Feit. His coverage of this year’s session has regularly looked at what Chopp was doing or not doing with left-leaning bills. And last week Feit headlined a post on the Weinstein bill this way:

Oly Inaction: Chopp is Stalling Again

But no one has written more words about the bill than Andrew Villeneuve at the Northwest Progressive Institute Official Blog Version 3.8. He says “it pains us to have to do this. We don't enjoy criticizing or admonishing Democrats in public - at all.”

I can vouch for that. Villeneuve uses his blog more to cheer Democrats on than to beat them into submission. A lot of the left’s unhappiness with Chopp on this bill is that the prime opponent is the Building Industry Association of Washington, a major conservative political force in the state. Villeneuve writes:

They're not interested in a meaningful exchange of ideas or the common good. They are greedy, they are selfish, and they give no quarter. Their meanness knows no bounds.

They abhor progressive values and despise Democrats. They are against the American way. They don't care about democratic tradition or the rule of law.

He says he’s tired of Chopp’s excuses and stalling.

He has a series of stories from unhappy homeowners. And he says lack of action on the homeowner’s bill of rights is “an outrage and a slap in the face to the thousands of Washington families who have suffered, lost their health, their ability to put their children through college, and their life's savings because of serious defects with their homes.”

David Goldstein at has also weighed in, saying Chopp is overly concerned about the BIAW.

Now, I don’t know if Chopp is simply afraid of the BIAW, or if he’s worked out some kind of a deal with them in which he’s promised not to pass the bill, but that’s the only reasonable explanation for Chopp’s intransigence on a bill that merely gives buyers of single family homes the same rights condo owners have enjoyed since 1990.

Goldstein asks the central question about Chopp’s leadership of the Democratic majority:

when he’s so clearly caving to the BIAW on such an uncontroversial scrap of necessary consumer protection, one has to wonder if Chopp’s focus on building a majority is getting in the way of his willingness to use it?

I'm not sure why supporters of this bill focus only on Chopp. If stopping the bill is such a violation of Democratic principles - because it is good policy and good politics apparently - why aren't members of the House majority speaking out? It's not just members of the Rules Committee who decide these things. If the Speaker really is acting against the interests of the majority, the majority has the right to challenge the decision. If you have enough votes you can force a vote on any bill. While some have said they are unhappy there is a hold on the homeowner's warranty, I have yet to hear any Democratic member say that Chopp is abusing his power or is not acting in the best interest of his caucus.

It’s not just the bloggers who pin the blame on Chopp. KOMO TV’s Keith Eldridge made the same thing clear in a “Problem Solvers” report he did on the bill. Eldridge tried to talk to Chopp “but the Speaker would not come out of his office for comment.” He had to settle for some slo-mo video of Chopp walking by.

The bill is SB 6385. Last year, opponents said that there needed to be a “a study bill to work out the problems,” according to the House committee report on the bill. “There needs to be a worked out approach everyone can agree to such as the condo act which took four years to negotiate.”

The same message came in testimony this year. The summary of opponents’ arguments said:

This type of major policy change shouldn't be rushed through on such short notice with little time to examine its impact. You need to evaluate the information that is out there to determine what the problem is and how it should be addressed.

Here are the people and organizations shown as opposing the bill:

Kevin Coker, American Institute of Building Design; Amy Brackenbury and Shelli Lucus-Kennedy, Building Industry Association of Washington; Daimon Doyle; Cliff Webster, Architects and Engineers Legislative Council; Mel Sorensen, Washington Defense Trial Lawyers; and Stan Bowman, American Institute of Architects of Washington Council.

UPDATE: Feit posted more today about Chopp and bills that have died in the House. And he linked to a story he wrote last year. In reminiscing about last year’s story, Feit makes the point for me that Chopp shouldn’t bear all the brunt of unhappy liberals.

When this ran last year, Chopp was super pissed, and his sycophantic colleagues, who were more than happy to criticize him off the record, cheered him in caucus when he ridiculed the story.

Here’s what I said last year and what still holds true today:

The House speaker — as the case with any speaker — is only as powerful as his members allow him to be. To portray Chopp as a dictator excuses the 61 other members of the Democratic caucus from any responsibility. And frankly that's part of what Chopp wants to do — shield members from criticism to help them get re-elected.

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Posted by TMW

2:19 PM, Mar 10, 2008

"If stopping the bill is such a violation of Democratic principles - because it is good policy and good politics apparently - why aren't members of the House majority speaking out?"

Probably because they know that Chopp is the primary engineer of their supermajority and know not to question him. They might have alienated the left wing of the party by not jamming through various liberal bills but ultimately Chopp knows what he's doing electorally, and until we have a multi-party system that brings a viable left-wing alternative there isn't a whole lot the "base" can do.

Posted by Hinton

2:55 PM, Mar 10, 2008

Actually, for me, the much larger issue is that you think we actually would care WHAT NPI thinks or writes. They represent no one, and other then speaking for a guy that can't get a real job, they speak for no one.

I'm sure Frank is quaking in his boots. But the rest of us could care less what NPI blogs.

The fact is that the fringe leftists will dutifully vote for Chopp just like they'll dutifully vote for the other democrats that kicked them to the curb in 06.

Posted by strauss

3:23 PM, Mar 10, 2008

As a lawyer who represents large and small contractors, subcontractors and building suppliers, as well as homeowners, I understand the issues in this debate very well. I also participated in all of the legislative hearings both last year and this, as well as several other times in the past 15 years. The answer from the opponents is always the same: Don't rush this. Let's meet after the session ends and we'll examine the issue, see if there really is a problem, and then we'll calmly negotiate agreeable solutions. Yet, when the session ends, the only thing that happens is that BIAW celebrates how they helped kill the latest attempt to hold their members accountable for sloppy work.

There are some other factual problems with your story. First, you fail to mention that Rep. Brendan Williams Democrat from Olympia, also introduced bills, both last year and again this year. Before that, Dennis Flannigan introduced a bill, and prior to that Jeanne Kohl-Welles, back in 2000, after a task force committee recommended changes. Every effort has reached the same result for homeowners: Nothing.

You also question whether anyone in the House is really interested in passing this bill. Twice last year the Judiciary Committee passed the bill, and again this year, with ALL Democrats voting for the bill. In fact, in every vote taken in the last two years by the House Judiciary committee, the only committee in the House to hold hearings, every Democrat has voted in favor of it. That sounds like good support.

What would happen if Chopp allowed a vote in the House? Based on what I have heard from members of the House, if they were given the freedom to vote, they would approve the bill with at least 50 Democrats voting in favor. One problem, of course, is whether they would actually get the freedom to vote. Superficially, they have the right to push a bill to a vote, but then they would be going directly counter to the Speaker's wishes. That is all too obvious.

Next, you fail to point out that your own paper, the Seattle Times, endorsed this bill last week. Better late than never. Earlier the Seattle P-I had endorsed it, as had the Daily Olympian.

What do the builders really want? The status quo. It's a great system for builders. They have no legal liability for economic damages caused by negligent construction. They NEVER have any exposure to claims by second owners. Unless they explicitly agree to provide a home that complies with building codes, they have no liability for damages caused by ignoring those codes. Other than politicians, they are the only industry that is immune from liability for their own negligence. What public policy does that advance? Does anyone think it leads to better construction?

Washington state has never required builders to provide a warranty on their homes. Homeowners have no right to enforce building codes or sue for negligence. Giving them the same rights as condo buyers have only begins to level the playing field. Any protest that the industry needs time to study the situation should be seen for what it is: delay.

Posted by NOT a trial lawyer

7:20 PM, Mar 12, 2008

This bill provides a dis-incentive for the GOOD builders and does nothing to improve the quality of work by the bad builders. As soon as this bill kicks in, there will be a “wide net” of increased risk associated with every builder, supplier, sub, architect, engineer, etc. who touches a SFR.

I’ll spell it out for you: “any asshole can file suit.” Whether a house is good or bad, suits will be filed. Then the defense costs pile up. After that suit is settled or dropped, liability insurance becomes unavailable or sky high. That is the scenario that will drive good builders away and open up more slots for the bottom feeders.

Now tell me every lawsuit over defective construction will be 100% with merit, repair costs will not be exorbitantly padded, attorneys will not be ambulance chasing all the new potential clients, and I will have a good laugh.

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