There are 26 new lawmakers learning their way around the Capitol Campus this week. It's doubtful any of them think voters sent them to uphold the status quo.
“It’s a large voting bloc, and I think there’s an understanding that what (state government) did for the last decade isn’t going to work,” Yelm Republican Rep. J.T. Wilcox said. “I think almost everyone that got elected thinks that they heard the people want a change.”
For Wilcox, who brings a business background to government after helping manage his family’s Wilcox Farms, change means government living within its means, without asking taxpayers for more revenue.
For another new lawmaker, Rep. Chris Reykdal, change means thinking ahead about what proposals today will mean years from now.
“I think you will hear a lot of us freshmen as we get a little tenure, ask questions: ‘What are the long-term effects of this?’” the Tumwater Democrat said.
The budget is unsustainable in the long term, Reykdal said, and the Legislature should reform the tax code to raise more revenue and keep government services intact. That will take “political courage,” he said.
The 21 new House members form the biggest class in at least a decade, said Bernard Dean, deputy chief clerk of the House.
Most, 11, are Democrats, even though voters cut the majority party’s edge to 56-42 this year. The House Republican Caucus counts it as a six-seat pickup because Wilcox unseated Tom Campbell, a Republican maverick who didn’t caucus with either party and chaired a committee under the Democratic majority.
In the Senate, which Democrats control 27-22, there are five new Republicans and five new Democrats, but half of the freshmen moved over from the House and are experienced at the legislative process.
The first-time legislators have varying levels of experience in Olympia. Reykdal may know the Legislative Building best of all of them. He worked as a Senate budget analyst and then as a finance administrator in the community-college system before taking the seat left by Democratic firebrand Brendan Williams.
House members new to the legislative process had a five-day crash course before session began. They sat through a presentation on ethics training (one tip: “Never solicit lobbyists for anything”), mock proceedings, lunch with the state Supreme Court and a reception with Gov. Chris Gregoire.
But it’s hard to prepare for the rush of the 105-day session.
“There’s a few of the new folks who are overwhelmed,” said House GOP Chief of Staff John Rothlin. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose; there is so much information to convey to them.”
“This group is a pretty talented group, so they’re doing better than most.”
New lawmakers have begun drafting and introducing bills. Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, R-Enumclaw, wants to make it a felony crime to harass law enforcement with threats. Rep. Connie Ladenburg, D-Tacoma, is writing a bill to standardize the traffic cameras that target red light runners and speeders.
COMMITTEES START UP
But mostly, they are hearing presentations on the programs and agencies they will oversee in their new committee assignments.
Reykdal serves on the Transportation and Higher Education committees and was named vice chairman of the Labor and Workforce Development Committee. He’s also on an education budget panel, where he will have a role in deciding how lawmakers tackle the dual challenges of a $5 billion budget shortfall and a court mandate to devote more money to K-12 education.
Wilcox will also work with the budget on the Ways and Means Committee and a general-government budget panel, in addition to work on the Education Committee and as the No. 2 Republican on the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
Neither plans to churn out bills right away. Reykdal said he will draw up a bill to devote 2 percent of community-college tuition to an innovation fund that pays for online learning and one-stop student access to their transcripts, their progress toward a degree and other online resources. Wilcox said there’s a public demand to manage state government better, not add new laws.
They come at the budget from different directions.
“Voters told us plain and simple they want their government to provide essential services without asking for more revenue,” Wilcox said in a news release this week.
Reykdal said he’s focused on tax reform to pay for core services. A disappointment this week, he said, was hearing Gregoire demand a shrinking scope of government in her State of the State address. The Legislature should put tax breaks on the ballot for elimination, he said.
“Everyone says everything’s on the table, so let’s put everything on the table,” Reykdal said. “Let’s put our tax code on the table.”
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org