If you take a look down Interstate 90 in either direction from downtown Spokane, you’re likely to see something Lisa Brown had a hand in creating, benefactors say.
There’s the medical building on the WSU Spokane campus, which was built with $35 million in state funding that Brown worked to secure as head of the Washington Senate in 2011. There’s the bustling development in north Liberty Lake, where roads and sewer pumps are still being built with sales tax money that is annually set aside under a demonstration program Brown championed in Olympia. Then there’s the Fox Theater, whose completed restoration in 2007 was made possible in part by millions included in the state’s capital budgets passed with Brown at the helm.
Brown’s legislative career spanned two decades, and in that time she rose to lead the majority party and thus had negotiating power in massive state budgets that led not only to iconic public investments in Eastern Washington, but also health care initiatives that still serve Eastern Washington residents today. That includes the Breast and Cervical Cancer screening program, which through a combination of state and federal funding has led to more than 6,700 free screenings in Spokane County since 2006, according to the Department of Health.
Many of the legislative victories Brown lists among her accomplishments occurred during her time leading the party and ushering legislation through the Legislature.
Mental health parity
Before 2004, both private and public insurance plans in Washington state had different rules and coverage caps for those seeking mental health services as opposed to care for physical ailments.
“Before the bill passed, if you wanted to get mental health care, you had to pay a 50 percent copay, which was drastically different and much more expensive than the copay you would have paid for any other health service,” said Lucy Homans, a licensed psychologist and director of professional affairs for the Washington State Psychological Association. Homans lobbied for the legislative changes that were enacted in 2004, 2007 and 2010 to the state’s coverage of mental health care.
Brown was a sponsor of the 2007 legislation, which made clear that individual and group plans offered in Washington state had to have the same premiums, copays and deductibles as other health care services. Homans praised Brown for her economic understanding of the need for the bills, which she said had led to a lessening of the stigma attached to seeking mental health care.
“I think that Sen. Brown really understood back then that you cannot separate the mind and the body,” Homans said.
The legislation, which passed in 2007 on a 41-3 vote in the Senate, did not affect self-insured plans. An analysis at the time found that about 49 percent of Washington residents would have been affected by the legislation, lessening the financial blow of seeking counseling and other services, Homans said. Subsequent changes to federal health care laws, most significantly the Affordable Care Act and its requirement that people buy coverage and the inclusion of mental health care in the 10 essential health benefits plans must provide, have increased coverage even more, she said.
The money fueling medical research innovation in Spokane comes out of a small percentage of the taxes you pay at retailers countywide.
Spokane County’s Health Sciences & Services Authority is the only operating entity of its kind statewide, after legislators including Brown pushed for its passage in 2007. The organization collects 0.02 percent of taxes that would otherwise go back to the state to instead pay for medical research or infrastructure supporting such research. Spokane County authorized the program in 2007, and it’s set to expire in 2023.
The program has generated $70 million in economic activity and supported 445 local jobs, said Susan Ashe, executive director of the authority. Funds have been used to support Kathryn Tuttle’s research into kidney disease at Providence Medical Research Center and work at Iasis Molecular Sciences on treatment for infectious diseases.
“We are the only funded one in the state of Washington,” Ashe said. “It’s a very small sales tax.”
The authority sets aside 15 percent of its funds to work with certain vulnerable populations, including frequent users of the city’s emergency services, Ashe said.
To date, the organization has given $5 million directly through competitive grants for medical research, Ashe said. She gave Brown, as well as former Sen. Chris Marr and Avista Corp., Providence Health & Services and Washington State University credit for bringing the idea to fruition. The authority will seek reauthorization past 2023 in the next legislative session.
Fox Theater restoration
For chief booster Bill Simer, the existence of the restored Martin Woldson Theater at The Fox in downtown Spokane is a direct result of Brown’s work in Olympia.
“Without Lisa’s assistance, we wouldn’t have the theater we do now,” said Simer, a partner with the accounting firm Eide Bailly who chaired the Spokane Symphony board amid the push for the $31 million renovation of the downtown landmark. “It would probably be a parking lot.”
Simer has said the same about Myrtle Woldson, who donated $3 million to the restoration effort that brought Gov. Christine Gregoire to Spokane in November 2007 to celebrate the grand reopening. In the crowd were Brown and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
State capital budgets in 2003, 2005 and 2007 all included millions of dollars in funding for the renovation of the theater. Brown became the majority leader in the Senate in 2005. The former movie theater was first constructed in 1931, and attracts nearly 40,000 visitors every year, according to figures provided by the Downtown Spokane Partnership in 2017.
Simer, who’s endorsed Brown in the campaign and has appeared in political ads championing her involvement in restoring the Fox, said it was the state support along with private investment that made the much-needed renovation a reality.
“The state support was equally pivotal,” Simer said. “It’s the backing that says we’re going to make this happen.”
Sales tax assistance in Liberty Lake
The area north of Interstate 90 in Liberty Lake would likely look different if not for the small city’s selection as a demonstration site for a public financing option first passed by the Legislature in 2006.
“What it actually did, it basically primed the pump,” Liberty Lake Mayor Steve Peterson said.
The Local Infrastructure Financing Tool (LIFT) program sets aside sales tax money produced in a specific area toward the construction of roads, sewer and water mains and other public infrastructure which must then be matched by the local government. An 11-acre park at Indiana Avenue and Harvest Parkway, begun this summer, will take advantage of funds accumulated through the state program.
Jim Frank, owner of Greenstone Homes, which is developing the River District housing project in Liberty Lake, credited Brown for her work on the legislation, which passed the Senate in 2006. A portion of the LIFT money is being used to support western expansion of the housing, which has included installing a roundabout at Mission Avenue and Harvard Road as well as a widening of Mission Avenue for additional traffic.
“Lisa was in the Legislature at the time the LIFT program was being considered, and she was instrumental in getting that legislation passed,” Frank said.
Peterson said the project allows Liberty Lake to continue to grow and compete as a border community with Idaho, which has lower tax rates.
“If we had to do that with our own tax dollars, it’d be a big challenge,” Peterson said. “It was a great tool, and it still is a good tool.”
Budgeting for a rainy day
Brown has used the 2007 introduction of a state “rainy day fund” in concert with Sen. Joe Zarelli, a Republican, as evidence she can work across the aisle on major legislation.
“Most people in my party were not in favor of a rainy day fund,” Brown told a room full of Rotarians at a debate earlier this month. “But I felt it was really important to stabilize our economy.”
Brown did have the backing of Gregoire, a Democrat, in the Senate when she sponsored the measure along with Republicans Zarelli and Rodney Tom. The bill also passed unopposed in the Senate, however in the House of Representatives some Democrats, including the budget writer Rep. Helen Sommers, called it folly at the time.
Zarelli, who left the state Senate in 2012 and now operates an executive services and government relations firm in Texas, said Brown should receive credit for working with Republicans on the proposal, which was originally a conservative idea. But he believed she did so for the politically expedient reason of keeping her caucus together.
“That period before the huge market collapse in 2008, we were spending every dollar that came through the door,” Zarelli said.
“To her credit, she was willing to work on this. It’s not like, from my perspective, there was a lot of options.”
The 2007 legislation requires the state to put 1 percent of its general fund revenues into an investment account intended to bolster the state’s borrowing rating and stave off emergencies during economic downturns. Use of the funds available in that account were called into question again during the most recent legislative session, when legislators voted narrowly to allow some of the money that would have gone into the “rainy day fund” to instead be used to fund public schools.