Missing the bad old days

Today's Legislature may be cleaner, but it's gutless.

Come midnight a few Saturdays ago, they closed down the last regular session of the state Legislature in the 20th century. No fanfare, no celebration as in the days of yore, say 32 years ago, when in the early morning hours, pomp and protocol dissolved into boozy camaraderie.

In 1967, Rep. Dave Ceccarelli, dressed in lipstick, rouge, and drag, delighted the body after adjournment, flouncing down the aisle of the House, accompanied by the whorehouse piano style of Rep. Maggie Hurley.

This week, a special session began to take up unfinished business, a $4 billion transportation budget tied up in a conflict between the Democratic-controlled Senate and the divided House—49 GOP, 49 Democrat. But a special session won't address the strong undercurrent of lament for the bad old days when, whatever their ethics, legislators came to work out the state's problems as well as to play.

The fin de si裬e session may be remembered for what it didn't do, its nice but flaccid leadership, which ran for political cover rather than going to war over the crippling budget restraints of Initiative 601.

The initiative is a killer, the weapon of choice for those opposed to government. It limits the growth of the state's general fund, which funds education, social services, and many functions of government, to a sum equal to the increase in population and inflation. The fact is both K-12 and higher education are both running ahead of 601's population/inflation index. The gap is due to widen.

The population/inflation index for 1997-99 was 8.1 percent. According to some sources, K-12 growth was 8.9 percent. Increase in the college age group (17-22 years) is 13.5 percent.

Worse is the fact that if the Legislature in its wisdom, or zeal to cripple education, fails to budget the full amount allowed under I-601, we will keep falling farther and farther behind, since the increase allowed in each new budget is based on the previous one.

The 1999-2001 budget approved before adjournment followed this worst-case scenario exactly: It was millions less than the sum allowed under the initiative.

On the upside, 1999 was notable for an absence of punitive legislation against public schools, growth management, the state Supreme Court, and sex acts unsanctioned by the Holy Bible. In other words, the session marked a retrenchment for the "Black Helicopter" caucus, about 13 House and Senate Republicans, who seem to believe if it isn't written up in the Bible, it isn't fit for legislative argument. This recession of the anti-government Republican right wing may be temporary.

Despite this bright spot, an old pro, former-legislator-turned-lobbyist Frank Warnke mourns the days gone by. "When I first came down, we had giants! I mean leaders like Augie [Sen. August Mardesich], who could catch a bill on the fly, read it in two minutes, and understand every word of it." It's true, and so could Sens. Bill Gissberg, Gordon Walgren, John Whetzel, Jim McDermott, Martin Durkan, and Jeanette Hayner, as well as Reps. John Bagnariol, Stu Bledsoe, and Bob Perry to name a few. Some of them were rascals, all are gone with precious few replacements. They were gifted with the skills of dealmaking that are necessary to the passage of serious legislation.

"Those were very smart legislators," says Jim Metcalf, who lobbied Olympia for 30 years. "Their kind doesn't seem attracted to the place anymore."

The sessions they dominated for three decades dealt head-on with the heavyweight issues: tax equity, property rights, pension reform, statewide land use planning, environmental protection, health care, community colleges, agency consolidation, and civil service reform. For sure they had strong executive leadership from Govs. Evans, Spellman, and Lowry.

So, a citizen should wonder, how did we go from legislatures willing to reform our regressive tax structure to one given to ideological deadlock and unwilling to say much about—never mind willing to amend—Initiative 601, which threatens the state's future by restricting funds for schools, the primary obligation of the state under our constitution, and colleges?

Long question. Short answer: Reform did it. We reformed ourselves from a relatively efficient, if somewhat ethically marginal, Legislature into one that is clean, bland, and mediocre; one turned timid confronting flocks of contract lobbyists and guns hired by special interests.

The Public Disclosure Law, Initiative 276, narrowed the legislative talent pool. So did the expanded time demanded of a citizen for legislative duties. What $300-an-hour lawyer will take 100 to 200 hours a year off his paycheck, while submitting a list of all of his and his firm's legal clients, and then subject himself to an expensive and, most likely, nasty political campaign? If ethically shaky, he might think a few bucks could be picked up on the side. Such has happened in state capitols. But in our state Capitol, he confronts the possibility of disclosure and its penalties. Not worth the effort.

In the absence of these potential members, the vacuum is filled with retired professionals, marginal entrepreneurs, schoolteachers and union employees, and one or two lawyers. The days of the local community leader from King or Whitman counties temporarily leaving his business for public duty in Olympia is gone. Rewards for doing good have diminished against the price to be paid.

Besides, the exposure of shady legislative practices by several of the "giants" had a chilling effect on potential legislators smart enough to do the public's business while also fattening his bank account. Walgren, Bagnariol, and Perry served time in federal prison as a result of convictions on what amounted to conflicts of interest. Mardesich was acquitted of a garbage-payoff charge in federal court. Now they are sorely missed by those with more than a casual familiarity with Olympia. Each was gifted and worked for the public good as well as, alas, for private interests.

Today another breed of political cat rules.

"Twenty years ago people came down here to do something," mused a veteran lobbyist still at his game. "Now some of them come down here not to do something. Legislators are more partisan. The place is less fun."

If, as you might think, nostalgia fuels this pining, consider the impressions of Monita Fontaine, a Washington, DC, lawyer-lobbyist who parachuted into Olympia on behalf of the Distilled Spirits Council. She has previously worked and observed legislatures in Nevada, Texas, and New York. How do we stack up?

"Your legislators are hard-working, fairly intelligent, and concerned. They are very nice and polite. Their facilities are excellent, and their system is open. They are willing to listen, but they are not willing to act. They lack courage. They will say, 'I know this is the right thing to do, but I don't want to take the heat.' The action stops.

"I have great respect for [Senate Majority Leader] Sid Snyder, but overall, leadership is weak. Gov. Locke plays his veto card, but otherwise is very low profile. He seems to be protected. The state agencies are a major power. They like the status quo.

"I understand there's been reform in Olympia. Other legislatures have gone through purification and emerged with excellent leadership."

During the federal court trial of John Bagnariol, there was a recording of a talk between the ex-Speaker's chief aide and an FBI agent costumed as a big-time gambler. The aide boasted, "We've got tough-nutted pols down here, tough as any in New Jersey."

And now? I asked Sid Snyder, a throwback, about the lack of action on I-601. His answer was diplomatic and delicate. "I don't think the time [for action] is right. It will be. So far, because of our exceptionally good economy, effects of the measure have not been devastating enough. There isn't enough public knowledge. Not one person in 10 knows about 601."

Translation: What's missing now are enough legislators with the stomach to tackle tough issues: tough-nutted pols, if you will.

Those of us who have watched and worried over the legislative process and now question the unintended consequences of reform wonder where to turn next for improvement. Throw the rascals back in?

Don Brazier, a former legislator and a former chair of the Utilities and Transportation Commission, and the Public Disclosure Commission, has a better idea. "Reduce the size of the Legislature." Currently, Brazier notes, we have the second-largest legislature in the western states with 99 representatives and 49 senators. He proposes cutting back to 64 House members and 32 senators. "Make the work full-time and pay a salary commensurate with those of our county commissioners, say $55,000 to $60,000 a year.

"It's clear the Legislature has gone downhill in talent as time needed for legislative task has risen. So face the facts: Make the Legislature a full-time job and never fall for the idea that we can legislate morality. The changes could be made by statute—no constitutional convention required.

"Very hard to accomplish, of course, and it still wouldn't be perfect."

Absent such change, he says, the people's government is pretty much in the hands of Capitol staffers. I'd amend that judgment to include lobbyists, and emphasize that unless something is done, some of us will look back wistfully on the bad old days.

 
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