New lawmakers make their mark South Sound’s first-year lawmakers say this year’s 105-day legislative session was a grueling learning experience, but they think they made a difference.
Rep. Fred Finn, a Democrat from west Thurston County whose party is in the majority, got four bills passed, including a measure that might keep eight fish hatcheries open despite budget cuts.
In contrast, Sen. Randi Becker, a Republican from Eatonville, had to be content with a couple of resolutions that honored a local dairy and Miss Washington. Becker also helped win Senate support for funding the Yelm loop highway project, colleagues say.
“I felt as a freshman, by and large, I should be seen and not heard. My mother always advised me to do that,” Finn said last week. “But I did speak out about a number of issues I felt particularly strong about.”
Finn and Becker took a few minutes to look back on a session that some lawmakers consider the worst and toughest they’ve endured.
A highlight of Finn’s four bills signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire was House Bill 1951. It allows public-private partnerships to operate state fish hatcheries, and it requires qualifications of new hatchery operators to be consistent with existing operators, Finn said.
His other bills set higher penalties for Christmas tree thefts from private lands; require certain Puget Sound cleanup costs to be reviewed by a science panel; and authorize the use of vehicle air-conditioning refrigerants that don’t deplete ozone, mirroring federal rules.
Finn also spoke out in favor of giving more of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples, and he advocated for a $1.50-a-barrel “stewardship fee,” or tax, on oil products that would have raised hundreds of millions of dollars. The bill died in the Senate; it would have raised millions of dollars for local governments to do stormwater projects that help Puget Sound and Hood Canal.
Finn said he came into the session opposed to tax increases but saw this fee as a net benefit for his district. The district has fishing, shellfish and tourism interests tied to Puget Sound’s health, which is endangered by runoff.
House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said Finn was willing to take tough votes even when leaders might suggest he take a pass. She described him as “quiet, but when he speaks up, he has something thoughtful to say.”
Becker said she also was quiet at first but spoke up more often as the session went on in the Democratic-dominated chamber. “I felt initially, as a new senator who beat a 16-year incumbent (Marilyn Rasmussen), the reception was a bit lukewarm,” Becker said. But as time went on, she earned compliments for her efforts from both sides of the aisle.
Despite her GOP role, Becker felt she had a voice on the Senate’s higher-education committee as the ranking minority member. She credited Democratic Sen. Derek Kilmer, the chairman, for that.
But overall, Becker was at odds with Democrats’ overarching agenda, considering it “very pro-union and very negative toward anything for free enterprise and employers.” She voted for the transportation budget, which had projects in her district, but voted against the capital-projects budget and against the operating budget.
She said Democrats’ shift of nearly $800 million from the capital budget accounts to spend on operations “robbed Peter to pay Paul.” She said she would have cut more spending in the operating budget, although she was hard-pressed to say exactly where.
Becker came into her position with a background in health-care administration, and she had hoped to have an effect on health-care discussions. But her most visible accomplishments were resolutions to honor Janet Harding, the Miss Washington winner from Yelm, and the Wilcox dairy, which operated for 100 years in her 2nd district.
Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, said Becker was a strong advocate for her district, helping him in his ranking role on the Senate Transportation Committee to secure funds for the Yelm loop highway project. In the House, 2nd district Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, has championed that project for several years.
Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch said he worked with both Finn and Becker, who were two of the more than 20 first-year lawmakers in the House and Senate. He said Finn was a “quick study” and helpful on transportation issues and that Becker was articulate about issues.
Next year, Sheldon said, he and Becker might work together on an off-road vehicle issue that their rural legislative districts share.
Both Finn and Becker were slammed by the information overload at the Legislature. Finn said that despite his background as a lawyer who had helped craft bills in Congress, he found the volume of bills and issues he had to master quickly taxing.
“I was surprised at the number of decisions one had to make where there were two good sides (to the argument) and the small amount of time you had to make those decisions,” he said. “But … at the end I was really impressed by how our system works. It looks like sausage making, but there is a majesty to it at the end of the day.”
Finn gave as an example a bill that restores voting rights for felons once they finish jail terms and probation but still have fines left to pay. Similarly, he voted for a measure that gives three-month housing vouchers to help released inmates move back into society, which he thinks will save money in the long run.
Finn had his share of disappointments or adjustments to make to the state’s fiscal realities. The $9 billion budget shortfall led to $4 billion in spending cuts, raids of construction funds and $3 billion in federal aid.
In the end, Finn voted for a budget that cut school funding, included tuition increases for colleges, and put less money into Puget Sound cleanup than most had hoped for. He had come into office wanting to improve school funding, avoid tax increases and clean up Puget Sound.
The bill that lets universities increase tuition by up to 14 percent a year for two years was among the more “unpleasant” votes he took. But Finn said tuition still will be a bargain in Washington, and federal financial aid increases will help cushion the effect.
“But I didn’t get elected to make pleasant votes. I got elected to try to do the best judgment I can,” the former lawyer and paint-store owner said. “Having run a business for most of my life, I recognize there are times you have to make those tough decisions.”
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688
Highlights for local lawmakers
South Sound lawmakers together passed a few dozen bills into law this year. Here are some of the highlights:
22nd District, serving Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater and north Thurston County
Sen. Karen Fraser: Six bills and three resolutions passed. SSB 5504 deals with reclaimed-water permitting, SSB 5537 repeals the state statutory debt limit, and SB 6088 deals with commute-trip reductions. Fraser also crafted the $3.3 billion capital budget.
Rep. Brendan Williams: Two resolutions and four bills passed. House Bill 1148 protects pets and other personal effects in court orders related to domestic violence. HB 1402 limits an employer’s contact with medical providers after an injured worker appeals a decision by state authorities.
Rep. Sam Hunt: One bill and one resolution passed. House Bill 1426 lets the state save $1.50 per letter sent using certified mail by using e-mail confirmations from the postal service. HR 4610 honors Olympia’s 150th birthday.
35th District, serving parts of west Thurston, Mason, Grays Harbor and Kitsap counties
Sen. Tim Sheldon: Two bills passed that deal with power-company administration. Also passed was HB 1286, which is the House version of Sheldon’s bill (SB 5211) that bars political ads that lie about or defame a candidate.
Rep. Kathy Haigh: Nine bills passed, including two measures the Democratic caucus needed for its budget. ESHB 2344 authorizes higher tuition; SHB 2356 suspends the school class size initiative and lets per-pupil allotments be set in the budget.
Rep. Fred Finn: Four bills passed. HB 1137 sets Christmas tree theft fines; SSHB 1951 allows public-private partnerships to operate fish hatcheries; SHB 1984 changes vehicle air-conditioning standards; and HB 1997 deals with Puget Sound scientific research.
20th District, serving Lewis, southwest Thurston counties
Sen. Dan Swecker: Three bills and a resolution passed. SSB 5705 sets up a one-person-one-vote system for voting in a new three-county flood-control district for Thurston, Lewis and Grays Harbor counties.
Rep. Gary Alexander: One bill and one resolution passed. SHB 1583 clarifies and streamlines county auditor procedures. HR 4645 honors The Evergreen State College’s basketball team.
Rep. Richard DeBolt: No bills passed for the House Republican leader.
2nd District, serving parts of east Thurston and southwest Pierce counties
Sen. Randi Becker: Two resolutions passed. SR 8612 honored Miss Washington and SR 8619 honored Wilcox Farms.
Rep. Tom Campbell: Three bills and one resolution passed. ESHB 1123 requires hospitals to respond to and report to the state cases of methicillin-resistant staph infection. ESHB 1033 requires use of non-lead weights on new vehicle wheels after January 2011. HR 4626 honors Miss Washington.
Rep. Jim McCune: No bills passed.