One thing Rep. Larry Crouse realized shortly after coming to the state capital: the issues are a lot more complicated than they seemed when he lived 320 miles away in the Spokane Valley.
“Not everything is black and white,” Crouse admits. “There are gray areas. If it was such that everything is black and white it would be easy to make decisions.”<
But gray areas aside, Crouse and the Valley’s other two lawmakers are sticking to their guns on the basics: get tough on crime, reduce state bureaucracy and ax needless regulations. And as part of the new Republican powerhouse, they may actually get some of what they want this time.
“I think we’ve pretty much set the agenda,” says Rep. Mike Padden. The Valley Republican is beginning his 15th year as a legislator.
But it’s Crouse who best symbolizes the new order in the state Capitol - an order where being a Republican no longer means being shut out. The easygoing Realtor was elected as part of the Republican landslide last November.
Crouse has already raised eyebrows with a controversial proposals to abolish the Washington State Arts Commission and get rid of arts funding currently built into all state construction projects. Another bill he is sponsoring would eliminate the requirement that a state board review AIDS curricula for medical accuracy before it can be taught in schools.
Those bills probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere last year, but November’s Republican sweep handed the GOP control of the state House of Representatives for the first time in 13 years. The Democrats retain a shaky one-vote majority in the Senate.
Crouse is one of 30 brand new Republican representatives trying to get up to speed on the legislative process. House Republican leaders have been holding special weekly meetings to tutor the freshmen representatives on issues ranging from water rights to health care reform.
Aside from the complexity of some topics, Crouse says the ever-present haze of politics often muddles reality.
“There is a lot of smoke over here in Olympia,” Crouse says. “Smoke and mirrors, we call it. Things are not always as they sound here.”
Padden and Sen. Bob McCaslin, another Valley Republican, have been around long enough to know the smoke and mirrors routine intimately.
Padden is one of very few state representatives who was around in 1982, the last time the Republicans controlled the House.
He now chairs the House Law and Justice committee, where he has used his clout to advocate the get tough on crime agenda he has long championed.
Padden wants longer sentences for criminals, and to make state prisons less cushy for inmates. He’s currently pushing a bill that would curb such inmate priveleges as cable TV, pornographic magazines, and conjugal visits.
Ironically, as he achieves his greatest power in Olympia, Padden may end up leaving the Legislature for another job back in Spokane. He has thrown his name into the hat for a county District Court judgeship that could pull him away before the session ends.
But until he hears about that job, Padden will revel in being part of the majority party again. He’s also happy that Crouse is more in line with his own philosophy than his Democratic predecessor.
“Previously, a lot of times George Orr and I would cancel each others’ votes out,” Padden says.
Orr, who lost his seat to Crouse last November, warns that House Republicans are going overboard in their quest to ax every regulation in sight.
“I don’t think that common sense is going to prevail. I think that kneejerk is going to prevail,” Orr says. “I fully understand that there are some problems with regulations, but you can’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”
Orr also wonders when the Republicans are going to seriously address the cost of building more prisons to house the additional felons snared by the get-tough-on-crime dragnet.
“We’ve got all this Clint Eastwood mentality - `Hang ‘em High’ and `Make my day’ - and that’s fine. But we’ve got to figure out how they’re going to pay for these prisons and who’s going to staff them,” Orr says.
Although the Valley’s lawmakers represent the same district and share similar beliefs, it’s rare to find them in the same place during the legislative session. Their busy schedules keep them rushing between committee hearings and appointments with constituents or lobbyists.
But when a bill that could solve the Valley’s train whistle woes came up for a public hearing last week, all three lawmakers went out of their way to show up and voice their support. For the fourth year in a row, Valley representatives are asking that state law be changed to allow counties to enact ordinances banning train whistles at gated crossings.
Most of the attention in Olympia so far has focused on the Republican-dominated House, which has been passing major legislation rapidly to fulfill the GOP’s “Contract with Washington.” However, every piece of GOP legislation faces a tough test in the Senate, where the Democrats have a one-vote majority.
Although a one-vote margin might not seem like much, McCaslin points out that it means every Senate committee is chaired by a Democrat. And if a committee chairman doesn’t like a bill, he or she can kill it without even allowing a vote.
That might not seem fair, but it’s all part of the game, according to McCaslin.
“If you’re in control it’s great. If you’re not in control, it’s poor,” the bulldog-faced senator says, laughing.
McCaslin says the Democrats have to be careful. If they stymie popular legislation, they could pay for it come election time, he warns.
“They’re looking over their shoulders,” he says.
Finally, of course, there’s Democratic Gov. Mike Lowry to consider. Although he has been stung by recent staff resignations and allegations of sexual harassment, Lowry still holds veto power.
But even before Lowry’s latest troubles, he was being written off as irrelevent by some lawmakers.
“His philosophy has isolated him,” Padden says.
Although Lowry and the Senate may prevent the Republicans from getting all their wishes, Padden says he thinks Valley voters will be pleased with the end product.
“I think they’ll see a real change of direction in state government,” Padden says.