Does Lynn Peterson firing signify war in the State Senate?

Feb 8, 2016, 12:07 PM
Sen. Pramila Jayapal says the surprise firing of Lynn Peterson, was not only "disingenuous," but mi...
Sen. Pramila Jayapal says the surprise firing of Lynn Peterson, was not only "disingenuous," but might also end up costing Washington taxpayers. (AP)

The surprise firing Friday of Lynn Peterson, who led the Washington State Department of Transportation, was not only “disingenuous,” according to Sen. Pramila Jayapal (D-Seattle), it might also end up costing Washington taxpayers.

Jayapal told KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz that the State Senate’s unexpected vote not to confirm Peterson’s re-appointment could lead to serious consequences. Most notably that because there is now no oversight over a department that recently received a $15 billion transportation package, in the process, the Republicans’ decision could cause the state to lose its bond rating.

Related: State admits I-405 toll lanes have worsened north end traffic

“They still could have not confirmed her, but with a considered process, we may have had a better shot of getting the money we need at the same rates that we were planning to get it at,” she said. “I think there’s a financial burden here that the taxpayers are going to end up paying for.

“If the taxpayers of the state of Washington want to pay more on interest for their bond money because the Republicans have a political agenda that they want to take on, I think the Republicans have to explain that to the people of the state of Washington,” she added. “But, to me, this is not about legitimate concerns … To me this is just an abuse of power. To use a surprise confirmation vote as the opportunity to fire the person who is the head of a major agency that takes care of a lot of things for the people of the state of Washington.”

State Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-Tacoma) told Rantz that this was “absolutely not” a misuse of power, as the legislators followed their constitutional power to do what they felt was best.

“This is the first time it’s been done, I think, since 1998, so it’s not something that is done often or without much thought,” he said. “We did it because we felt we needed to do it now before those projects got underway. I think what will happen is the governor will hire someone, hopefully, who has a lot more project management experience in the secretary and maybe he’ll even consult with us this time before he actually hires that person. I hope he does.”

O’Ban acknowledged that it was unusual for such a surprise to be kept without a leak, and said he wasn’t part of leadership that decided when and how this would be done. He called the move a “statement about accountability” following a series of acts of mismanagement. He said discussions about this possibility had been ongoing the past couple weeks, but that the real decision-making among Republicans only truly started on Friday, hours before the vote.

“We always want to take a vote of our caucus when something’s as important as this and make sure we’ve heard all the arguments pro and con,” he said. “So we did that and we were in the meeting for quite some time, but we emerged and even our chairman of transportation, Curtis King, who worked Sec. Peterson for so long, he agreed that this had to be done. So it was a unanimous decision.

“We really had the time to deal with the weight of the evidence, as it were (Friday) and so after that discussion it was clear and unanimous that we needed to take this difficult step,” he added.

O’Ban said it ultimately came down to a lack of confidence in Peterson’s ability to manage the budget. He said there was a pattern of poor performance with large projects, including the I-405 “tolling fiasco,” mismanagement of ferries and “some issues related to sexual harassment under her watch.”

O’Ban said he had his own sour experience with Peterson when it took her more than a year to provide him with a hard estimate on the I-5 buildout he was hoping to include in a transportation package.

“I was just shocked that she couldn’t provide a hard estimate when we needed it a year before the package,” he said.

Jayapal said Democrats found out about the decision a few minutes before noon when seeing the list of gubernatorial appointments.

“It was a complete surprise to us and frankly a huge disappointment,” she said. “This was politicization of a process in a way that is completely disingenuous and is election year campaigning.”

Related: Dori: Ousting of WSDOT head could end up saving us all money

Jayapal says that seven months ago, all of the members of the Senate Transportation Committee unanimously passed Peterson’s confirmation.

“To now say seven months later that there are all these problems and to use that as an opportunity to immediately fire the department head when we just passed a $15 billion transportation package, is unbelievably irresponsible to the people of state of Washington,” she said.

Republicans, who are the majority in the senate, could have done this long ago through the proper process, and would have had enough votes to win, Jayapal added.

“I think that any concerns in her performance should be brought before the committee,” Jayapal said. “That’s the process. And there is no reason that this has to come to the floor at a surprise move when it is something that is such a big decision for the senate and for the people of the state of Washington. I don’t think you would find any Democrat unwilling to listen to a reasoned case for why she perhaps isn’t the best person for the Department of Transportation. I’m not saying I believe that, but I’m saying we didn’t have a chance to hear that. We didn’t have a chance to hear what she has to say, we didn’t have a chance to see what exactly the actions are. We didn’t have a chance to see what exactly is the consequence of doing this.”

Jayapal says the Republicans have sent a message about how they want to run the government — “with no process … respect … or acknowledgment for years of service — which she believes will make it hard to find a replacement.

“This is about politics and not actually about governing,” she said.

When asked whether this was war, Jayapal responded: “I’m anti-war. I don’t believe that we should go to war unnecessarily. And it certainly seems like they are doing everything possible to essentially torpedo the efforts of us in government to actually deliver to the people. And I think that is deeply disappointing to me as somebody who came into government because I believe we need to rebuild trust in people and get rid of cynicism and I think these kinds of moves are the kind of thing that rings about cynicism.”

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Does Lynn Peterson firing signify war in the State Senate?