DARLENE FAIRLEY could probably charm a cougar out of a steak if she wanted to. The 32nd District's Democratic state senator from Lake Forest Park might decide just to smack the cougar instead, if she felt the big cat deserved it, though. We saw both sides of her when she came in for her editorial board interview last week.
Her fit of pique with us was certainly justified. Fairley has been a paraplegic since 1977, when a drunken truck driver crashed into her car. We thought our building provided easy entry for disabled people, but it turns out that you can't park on the accessible side of the building during the day, even if you have a handicapped permit. That meant Fairley had to climb two sets of stairs on her crutches before reaching the elevator.
Fairley doesn't believe in holding her tongue. So she bawled us out—I mean, educated us—about our building's shortcomings. As soon as I mentioned the state's capital budget, however, she cheered up immensely. The charm offensive began. "I got money," she declares with satisfaction. As vice chair of the state Senate's Ways and Means Committee, Fairley is in charge of her chamber's capital budget, and she loves it.
Last year, against all expectations, Fairley, along with her counterpart in the House, state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, was able to pass a $108 million capital budget that will be used for construction projects all over the state.
How is this possible when the state is so broke? "Money is real cheap right now," Fairley says.
The state raises the money for its capital budget by borrowing—issuing bonds—that are paid off by the general fund. The law says you can borrow up to 7 percent of the value of the general fund. Since interest rates are low, borrowing money is relatively inexpensive at the moment. "I can spend up to $1.7 billion on construction and bolster the economy and create jobs" to boot, she exclaims.
Since the bonds have to be repaid with money from the general fund, it isn't quite as sweet a deal as she makes it out to be. But then Fairley likes to tell a good story to get your attention. Here's her formula for understanding the state's finances: "To educate, incarcerate, and medicate takes 82 percent of the general fund budget. Add 5 percent for bond debt. And the rest is stuff you can actually cut" to close budget deficits.
How does she make the decisions about which projects to fund around the state? "It's lots of fun. I'm all alone in my office, and I just go down the list: no, no, no, take it out, I like that," until she has a good list. Then she calls in her Republican counterpart, state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Vancouver. "He is filled with good ideas," she observes happily. And Fairley is ready to make sure that the people of Washington receive the beneficence of those good ideas: capital projects like schools, concert halls, sports arenas, parks, and child-care centers—whatever.
And wherever. She understands that in order to round up the 60 percent majority needed to pass the bonds, you have to spread the wealth around. "I love dealing with hard-asses who think they won't do anything," Fairley explains. "You peel them off one by one. I love negotiating with people." She doesn't believe that one legislator's district is more worthy than another. "People need help everywhere," she says generously.
Her pet projects are community colleges and vocational technical schools. "Not everybody goes to [a four-year] college, but everybody needs a job," she notes. Let's "redirect some of the money from higher ed to community colleges. I told them to put in more requests. Let's fix them up!" Right here in Seattle, she feels, the Vocational Institute on Jackson Street needs money.
The projects she hates funding are prisons. "I'm a Quaker. Why would I want to build a prison?" She does admit that prisons have to be built, however.
She won't fund just any project. Last year, "Mary Margaret (Haugen—transportation chair and a Democratic state senator from Camano Island) tried to make me take the damn seawall!" (It runs along Seattle's central waterfront next to the Alaskan Way Viaduct.) "It's a construction project, but it's a transportation project. Dang, that's expensive." (The city of Seattle estimates the seawall replacement at between $750 million and $1.5 billion.)
But she's less discriminating than some. "There are things that used to be in the capital budget that are in the operating budget now and vice versa. It depends what budget you need to move them into."
Fairley's approach to the budget is refreshing. The open horse trading, the liberal desire to use government money to build useful things all around the state, and the willingness to do what it takes to get the necessary votes have not drawn smiles from everyone, however. House Republican leader Clyde Ballard of Wenatchee grumped that the Legislature was being turned into some kind of swap meet.
Murray observes, "One person's pork is another person's district project." In addition, he notes, "I can't see any difference from the Republicans' capital budget when they were in the majority." Finally, he notes that Fairley, despite her cavalier storytelling, vets projects very carefully and does an admirable job of bringing together the House and the Senate and the Republicans and the Democrats.
That makes sense from what I know of her. The fact that it's hard for Fairley to get around physically seems to have left her with a steely determination to bridge whatever divides stand in her way.