Legislative spending not just about budgets

South Sound retailers are not the only businesses that experience an increase in sales when the state Legislature is in session. Just ask landlord Louise Benoit.

Benoit, who turns 85 next week, has rented out a room in her Olympia home to legislative staff and lawmakers for the past 30 years, including current Republican Congressman Doc Hastings when he was a member of the state House of Representatives.

Housing list

Benoit is among a number of South Sound residents who take advantage of a housing list that circulates among legislative staff each session, said Gerry Sheehan, staff coordinator for the Legislative Information Center.

Sheehan said a new housing list is compiled each year with an estimated 150 to 200 listings of rooms, apartments and homes that are available to rent.

The list is then made available to legislative aides, interns and lawmakers, but not lobbyists, he said.

Taking measurements

The session's impact on the Thurston County real estate market has caught the attention of the Economic Development Council of Thurston County.

It is now beginning to gauge the effect of all spending in the county related to the session, said Michael Cade, the council's executive director.

"We've started that process, but I haven't gone far enough to say it's significant (impact) or not," Cade said. "We want to treat government as a business. It is an economic sector."

This session Benoit has rented out a room in her 2,200-square-foot home for $450 a month to Kevin Hulten, a legislative assistant to Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

Investing the income

With rental income that Benoit has earned over the years, she has invested in new carpeting in her home.

"This year I've already bought a digital camera and a new computer," Benoit said.

Hulten, 27, who continues to pay rent for a place in Lake Stevens, describes the housing list as a great resource that allowed him to find inexpensive lodging near the Capitol Campus.

"I just need somewhere where I can crash," he said.

Sen. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake, who spent three years in the House of Representatives before joining the state Senate, has consulted the housing list before.

During her time in Olympia, she has rented furnished and unfurnished apartments and a mother-in-law suite, but today she rents a room in a friend's home in Boston Harbor.

"I've done a gamut of things," Holmquist said.

Other lawmakers have put down more permanent roots.

Sarah McIntosh, who developed the West Bay condominiums known as Smyth Landing, has sold a condo this session.

"This is the first year to try out the (housing) list," she said, adding that it took about two weeks to secure a buyer. "I highly recommend it to any property owner."

The condo buyer, Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, could not be reached to comment, but he paid $400,000 for the property, according to Thurston County Assessor records.

Lobbyist spending

Besides the effect on the South Sound real estate market, lobbyists who converge on Olympia each legislative session, also inject a healthy amount of cash into the Thurston County economy.

In 2006, total spending by lobbyists statewide was $40 million, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

PDC Spokeswoman Lori Anderson said the agency doesn't track those numbers by spending per county, but lobbyist Denny Eliason of Alliances Northwest estimated that 75 percent of the $40 million was spent in South Sound.

Last year, Alliances Northwest racked up about $42,000 in expenses, of which 20 percent to 25 percent was spent on entertainment, Eliason said.

Debbie Gaetz, who acts as kind of an executive director for an association of lobbyists known as the Third House, said lobbyists spend money on dry cleaning, groceries, restaurants, movies, setting up utilities at home and renting movies at the store.

"They (lobbyists) purchase everything that they do back home," Gaetz said. "Some entertain more, and some are on limited budgets."

Out and about

Typical restaurant destinations for lobbyists and their clients include Falls Terrace in Tumwater, and the Olympia restaurants Budd Bay Cafe, Mercato and Anthony's, she said.

Ralph Lund, longtime general manager and executive chef of Falls Terrace in Tumwater, told The Olympian last month that he expects to see somewhere between a 10 percent and 20 percent gain in business as a result of the legislative session.

Hotels also welcome the arrival of each session.

Business at the Governor Hotel in downtown Olympia increases about 20 percent during the legislative session, general manager Sandra Miller said.

"We love them," she said.

Rolf Boone covers business for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5403 or by e-mail at Business editor Jim Szymanski contributed to this report.