Lawmakers eye cuts in marketing, communications jobs

Budget: Proposal would reduce number of state workers in PR positions

February 14, 2011 

On Jan. 24, Republicans in the state House had a unanimous message: The budget plan that passed the House that day made too many cuts to schools and not enough to social programs.

But each lawmaker had a variation on the message, so their staff was in full gear that day, issuing at least 20 written broadsides registering their displeasure about the budget. More statements went out to the public and the media about other topics, and all the while, Democrats across the aisle and senators across the Capitol rotunda were sending out their own news releases.

Lawmakers are looking to reduce the ranks of the hundreds of employees who do marketing or communications work for state government agencies. But their proposal leaves untouched more than 30 similar positions in the Legislature.

Those jobs are staffed year-round, even though their bosses spend just one-quarter of the year in session in Olympia, and even though state law keeps the employees from updating websites or putting out news releases after June 30 in an election year.

During session, the 35 people working on communications in the partisan caucus staffs are just about enough to stack up to the 36 members of the news media who applied for press access to the Legislature this year.

That size is one reason Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget director, Marty Brown, was surprised this month to see a directive in the Senate version of the short-term budget-cutting plan for him to slim down the state public-relations corps. The order calls for $1 million in pay savings in the next four months.

“I would just ask them, how many communications folks do they have in the four (legislative) caucuses?” Brown said when asked about the proposed cut.

Gregoire has four staffers and her budget office has three, while legislators share staff. But “We get calls from all over the state,” Brown said. “Legislators get them from their district.” Moreover, those calls and e-mails generally are fielded first by aides, separate from the caucus operation. Each lawmaker has an aide, and most senators have a second aide during session, for nearly 200 staffers at its peak.

Some lawmakers, though, figure their branch is supposed to advance ideas and needs staff to get those ideas out to the public. They see theirs as minuscule compared with the executive branch’s communications corps of at least 380.

Thirty-five in the Legislature is “about right, I think,” Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt said. The staff helps lawmakers shine light on problems in the executive branch, he said.

“We’re the ones doing the advocating (on) all of this abuse and fraud and other things that we’re trying to expose down here and take care of,” Hewitt said.

Legislative leaders stressed that communications staff has taken cuts. The Senate Democrats and Republicans each had 10 staff during the 2008 session; now they each have seven.

In the same period, the number of people devoted to communications year-round in the House has stayed about the same, but session-only hires have been cut from four to one. And some staffers are now split between communications and policy work, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan noted.

“We have made cuts in our communications staff,” said Sullivan, a Covington Democrat. “Do we need to go deeper? We’ll be making those decisions.”

Workers classified in the main category of communications staff in the executive branch, meanwhile, have stayed roughly level since 2008. And their ranks have increased by one-quarter since 2006.

Lawmakers such as Hewitt, a Republican, and Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina, a Democrat, see the executive branch’s public-relations work as a way for agencies to advocate for their own existence and growth.

In the Legislature, communications staffers are stretched thin, said Lisa Fenton, communications director for House Republicans. Her staff handles, on average, about five lawmakers each.

It might be a part-time Legislature, but constituents don’t view it that way: They have “full-time needs,” Fenton said.

The communications staffs run caucus websites, write briefing papers and put together mailers, said Melinda Ellis-McCrady, policy and communications director for House Democrats. The staff puts together telephone “town halls” that go out to 28,000 homes, she said. They keep up most of those activities when the Legislature’s not in session.

It came to a stop during 2010’s election-year “freeze,” when the staffs were banned from posting new material. But McCrady said House Democratic staffers made good use of the four months, learning the latest social-networking tools and preparing the website for an update.

“Our job isn’t just to pump out news releases,” Fenton said. “Our job is to make sure our members’ constituents have the information they need.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826

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