July 6, 2009 in City
State lawmakers keep it local
Representing region often means crossing party lines
OLYMPIA – Last year, in his bid to win a seat in the Statehouse, Spokane-area coffee entrepreneur Kevin Parker knocked on nearly 22,000 doors.
It worked. In a difficult year for Republican candidates, Parker ousted a Democratic incumbent.
Nine months after the election – and nearly a year before he can file for re-election – Parker is still knocking on local voters’ doors nearly every day.
“One of the biggest points of confusion is that I’m not asking for their vote,” he said. “I’m asking for their opinion.”
Welcome to the 6th Legislative District, where all three state lawmakers are high-energy political newcomers. And to a degree that’s unusual in Olympia – and that sometimes draws fire – all three are willing to work across political lines.
“Campaign season being what it is, that’s the posturing part of our jobs,” said fellow state Rep. John Driscoll, D-Spokane. “But when we’re down in the trenches, we’re working for our district, and we know that.”
Case in point: The two teamed up with Democratic state Sen. Chris Marr to get $250,000 tucked into the budget for changes at a U.S. Highway 195 intersection after a local girl was killed there last winter.
And after a Spokane man in need of an organ transplant nearly died during the insurance waiting period, the three teamed up to pass a law that sharply reduces such delays.
Here’s a look at what each of the three lawmakers has worked on recently, and what each sees for the future:
•Chris Marr, D-Spokane: A former Spokane car dealer elected to the state Senate in 2006, Marr is a high-energy dealmaker who’s moving up quickly in Democratic leadership. But he couldn’t save his top priority this year: a controversial rewrite of renewable-energy requirements for power companies. Marr and other proponents called it a pragmatic move that would keep energy bills down. But some environmentalists, after praising him in his first two years, this month blasted him as an “anti-environmental crusader.”
“I think on some energy policy, we need to re-think the orthodoxy,” he said.
Marr sponsored 29 bills this year. He pushed for more developmental screening for young children. He passed Senate Bill 5583, which will allow farmers and others to keep their full water rights even if they’re using less.
“Under present Washington law, it’s either use it or lose it,” said Marr. “There’s no incentive for doing the right thing and conserving.”
A former state transportation commissioner, Marr also proposed a bill to phase out studded tires. After a deluge of calls from Eastern Washington drivers, he said he’s backed off the idea.
He’s risen to vice chairman of the state’s transportation commission, where he’s pushed to keep the North Spokane Corridor on lawmakers’ radar in lean budget times.
Marr said he’s part of a freshman class of business-oriented, centrist Democrats from swing districts elected in 2006. This year’s multibillion-dollar budget shortfall was a crucible for the new lawmakers, he said.
“I think it will inject a level of discipline that maybe would not have been there if we hadn’t been subjected to this trial by fire,” he said.
•John Driscoll, D-Spokane: Elected last fall to the state House of Representatives, Driscoll is also the executive director of Project Access, a volunteer network of health providers offering free care to low-income, uninsured patients in Spokane County.
Driscoll had an unusually successful year for a freshman. He sponsored 14 bills and passed six. He said he was most proud of the organ-transplant bill, House Bill 1308, which reduces the waiting periods imposed by some health insurers.
“I know that’s going to save someone’s life someday, probably,” he said.
He passed HB 1113, which allows the sale of $130 million in school construction bonds. And his HB 1692 will allow “promotional activities” by boards that oversee things like convention centers and stadiums.
What that means in plain English, Driscoll said, is that facility officials can now pay for things like airfare, hotels, meals and drinks for visiting groups they’re trying to recruit for conventions or other big events.
“It’s economic development,” said Driscoll. “You’re out seeking them, recruiting them and trying to convince them that our city is better than Minneapolis.”
Until now, state law banned such use of public dollars. But Driscoll said it’s subject to tight auditing. In a competitive environment, he said, the change just made sense.
“If I bring a group into Spokane and spend $2,000 on their hotel and food while they’re in town and they agree to bring their convention to town, that’s a damned good investment,” he said.
Looking forward, Driscoll said he plans to push for tax incentives for companies that create jobs in distressed communities. He also wants to find ways to fill the pipeline for future needs for nurses, lab technicians and family-practice doctors.
•Kevin Parker, R-Spokane: Republican lawmakers face an uphill battle in the Democrat-dominated Statehouse, and freshmen more than most. Parker proposed four bills this year; none passed.
Still, Parker pushed hard for a bill to allow the state to take custody of abandoned veterans’ remains at funeral homes. The ashes will be placed at veterans’ cemeteries.
The bill, HB 1001, passed the House unanimously. But Senate Democrats, looking out for one of their own, instead passed Marr’s nearly-identical version.
“The important thing was that the bill got through,” Parker said.
Another Parker bill would have allowed the state to give more money to state and private colleges that are training people in critically needed careers.
“The most obvious example of that would be nursing,” he said.
Another would have required fingerprinting and a background check for anyone offering their home as a “safe house” for children. The homes have signs, and children can go there if they’re injured, for example, or being bullied.
Parker said he knows of no local case where a child molester has offered to sponsor a safe house. But it’s better to be proactive than reactive, he said.
Parker, a former youth ministry worker, clearly relishes the personal contact that being a state lawmaker entails. When the state proposed cuts to education, he called all 57 principals in his district. In his doorbelling, he’s had people invite him for dinner, try to give him a coat, and cry on the doorstep about their struggles to afford health care.
“People invite you into their lives, and that’s often where legislation comes from,” he said.
And there are a lot of hidden opportunities for a lawmaker to help, he said.
Three weeks ago, there was a glitch over a planned movie shoot at an unused part of Eastern State Hospital, he said. A state rule required a 30-day notice for the filming, meaning that the crew was on the verge of pulling out and shooting in Canada instead.
“We got it cut down from 30 days to just five days,” he said. The film crew stayed.