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June 27, 2005

Interview with Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown

The least well known of the four magnificent women leaders of this state, Lisa Brown has just come off a successful legislative season, her first as Majority Leader.  Along with Governor Gregoire and Speaker of the House, Frank Chopp, she sheparded through a rash of bills that have set this state on a path of responsible governance, reminiscent of the best Washington State has had in the past.    Lisa_brown_1

The Democrats have only a slim majority in the Senate, 26-23, which includes two rural Democrats who vote fairly conservatively.  Nevertheless, aside from the losses of two key bills – on gay rights and stem cell research – she was able to steer through an impressive agenda.  In talking with her, I hear a welcome focus on process – on how she works with her colleagues – that allows her to hold her caucus together and coordinate effectively with the House leadership and with the Governor. 

Brown talked particularly articulately about the issues that separate rural and urban voters, one of our biggest challenges as Democrats.  Senator Brown is the only Democratic Senator in Eastern Washington and there are only 3 Democratic Legislators from Eastern Washington in the House.  She says, “There is a real decline in people in Eastern Washington who identify as Democrats and environmental legislation, particularly land use and natural resource regulation, is at the crux of that decline.  This stems from the changing nature of the economy.  Rural Washington used to be a natural resource-based economy.  That is changing and the change brings a lot of dislocation for folks.”

Brown also shared her concern with the possibility of having the anti-gas tax initiative on the ballot and said that this is the place that the Democrats need assistance right now.  She said that she and other leaders worked very hard to get support from community leaders, business leaders and labor across all the cities and counties in Washington State for passage of the Transportation Bill.  The whole story about the importance of that bill and its support by such a wide group of people is not getting out.  Were that initiative to get on the ballot and pass, it would curtail not only needed spending on transportation projects but also spending in many other areas in the future.

Keep your eyes on Lisa Brown.  She’s already a force to be reckoned with.  We’re likely to be seeing a lot more from her over time in even more visible roles.   The interview is after the fold.   NWPT56

To read a post-session interview with Governor Chris Gregoire, click here.

Q:  What do you see as your biggest accomplishments in this Legislative Session?

LB: This was my first session as Majority Leader.  Given the narrowness of our majority, I was pleased that we held together as much as possible in order to pass our agenda.  Governor Gregoire, Speaker Frank Chopp and I met early together to establish an agenda.  We talked about what we thought success would be and we were able to work together to accomplish most of what we wanted.  In the Senate, we were able to keep most of the caucus together on most issues.  And we finished on time.  That is rare.

As Majority Leader, my job is to be the conductor of the orchestra rather than to work on my own agenda.  The role of the leader is to keep things moving as best they can.  I think members of the caucus felt like their voices were heard.  My freshman year, 1993, was the last year that we had both a Democratic governor and a majority in the legislature. This is the first time since then we’ve had the political line-up to get things done. 

Q: Agenda-wise, what do you see as the biggest accomplishments of the session?

LB: There were a couple of issues that had languished in previous sessions that I thought needed to be brought to the fore.  We were able to pass a landmark mental health bill that will improve the quality of treatment for people grappling to overcome mental illnesses and substance abuse problems.  It was a dramatic accomplishment to expand mental illness parity.  We made up for $82 million in federal funding cuts.

We also voted on civil rights legislation for the first time since my freshman year in the House.  It did not pass unfortunately but at least we brought it to a vote.

We also passed an Operating Budget and a Transportation Budget for the long-term. 

Going into this session, we were hopeful that we could get some good environmental legislation passed.  Previously bills had typically passed in the House but not in the Senate.  So that was a leadership priority.  The Democratic caucus was not unanimous on this.  It was significant that we received support from moderate Republicans and some rural Democrats so were able to pass bills adopting more rigorous auto emission standards and requiring that public buildings meet “green building” standards, both big wins.   

Q: Say more about this split.

LB: This is where a breakdown between rural and urban voters shows up and is one of our biggest challenges as Democrats.  I am the only Democratic Senator in Eastern Washington and there are only 4 Democrats from Eastern Washington and we are all from the Spokane area.  There is a real decline in people in Eastern Washington who identify as Democrats and environmental legislation, particularly land use and natural resource regulation, is at the crux of that decline.  This stems from the changing nature of the economy.  Rural Washington used to be natural resource-based economy.  That is changing and the change brings a lot of dislocation for folks.  This is at the core of the differences between rural and urban voters

Q: What were your biggest disappointments?

LB: The loss of the Civil Rights legislation, the bill that would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation, was a huge loss.  It fell just one vote short, although at least we were able to bring it up for a vote. 

Also, other than reinstating the estate tax, we were not able to make much headway on addressing Washington’s structural tax issues.  This was a big disappointment. 

Q: What can you and we do better as Democratic leaders and as your committed supporters in this State?

LB: We have to be able to do a better job of telling our story.  We grapple with the issue of communication.  For example, the state is now faced with the possibility of this anti-tax initiative.  We worked very hard to get support from community leaders, business leaders and labor across all the cities and counties in Washington State for passage of the Transportation Bill.  The whole story about the importance of that bill and its support by such a wide group of people is not getting out.  It is being characterized as a ten cent tax increase when we were very careful to phase in the additional taxes, a few cents at a time over several years. 

Were that initiative to get on the ballot and pass, it would curtail not only needed spending on transportation projects but also spending in many other areas in the future.

Also, individual legislators spend a lot of time working on legislation.  They don’t have much time to get their stories out.

Q: What’s next?  What do you want to focus on next year?

LB: First off, education.  We have a study going on regarding financing of the schools.  It will be a challenge over the next couple of years to find a formula for financing education.  Over time we want to revamp and attract new sources of funding.  I just returned from a Trade Mission to Europe, my first, where we met with governmental and business leaders.  We came back with an even clearer understanding of the importance of an educated work force.  And, of course, education is our paramount duty as defined in the State Constitution.

We also have to grapple with the whole issue of the tax structure and how to support economic development in a global economy. We get pressure from business leaders in the state to decrease the cost of doing business here.  We have higher costs than other states because our wages are higher than some other places, we have a family leave act, and our regulations are stronger.  There is always a pressure to go to the lowest common denominator and we have to address that. 

Q: What would you like to see in terms of increased citizen involvement and communication?

LB: At this time, people often get their information and form their views based on limited sources.  So they don’t see the whole story, as in the anti-tax initiative I mentioned before.  There is a lot of skepticism of people in power, which is positive on the one hand but also limited.  A lot of people on the street think that politicians waste their money.  They ask only, “What’s in it for me?”  This attitude makes it hard to govern well for the longer term.  I don’t have answers, just questions. 

I think the right question is “How do we talk to people?”  There is a wide-spread awareness that this needs addressing.  Legislators struggle with the votes they take, not because they think their vote is wrong but because they are not sure their constituents will understand the vote.  There is a disconnect here.

Thank you.   

Posted by Lynn Allen on June 27, 2005 at 08:43 AM in Interviews | Permalink

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Comments

Actually, there are three Democratic House members in Eastern Washington. Two in Spokane (Wood & Ormsby) and one in Walla Walla (Grant).

Thanks for the great interview with my favorite senator!

Posted by: martha | Jun 27, 2005 11:46:25 AM

Martha,

Thanks for the correction. I suspect Brown said there were 4 altogether and I misunderstood. I'm making the change now.

Posted by: Lynn | Jun 27, 2005 12:52:35 PM

Superb!

Go Lisa Go

Posted by: Thomas Trainwinder | Jun 27, 2005 2:22:21 PM

I found it telling that Lisa said, "We have to be able to do a better job of telling our story." My beef with polititions is not that they don't tell their story well. It is that they do not listen to the concerns of their constituants. I feel very disconnected from Olympia right now because they seem to not care how well they are spending our money. They push through tax increases without understanding if, or to what extent they are necessary. If a good audit were to let us know that the money is being pretty well spent (perfection is not required) and more is needed, I will gladly support increases in taxes. But until I see that, I won't support a single dime of increase. I don't run my household the way Olympia runs. I don't know of any successful business that runs the way Olympia runs. It is fiscally irresponsible, and I don't see that Lisa Brown has done anything to change that.

Posted by: David Bond | Jun 28, 2005 10:41:44 AM

With regard to the anti-gas tax initiative I-912, a performance audit was done on the Washington State Department of Transportation. That was in 1997 - 1998 I think. And, yes, the independant auditor found that the department was spending money well, and more was needed if the public wanted more road improvements. People should understand that the gas tax is not a percentage of the price like the sales tax, but is a fixed amount so it actually loses value every year with inflation. Also, we have been cutting many transportation related taxes in the past few years courtesy of Tim Eyman.

Posted by: Mark | Jul 28, 2005 3:11:18 AM

In a move that would undermine local control and significantly alter the teaching of sexual education, the Senate voted 30-19 to pass Substitute Senate Bill 5297, a heavy handed measure to impose state mandates on sexual education.

Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Vancouver, offered three amendments to the bill to protect successful abstinence programs. All three measures failed.

“Although the sponsors of this measure argue that this is a comprehensive bill that allows for abstinence education, the language in the bill is clear – schools cannot teach abstinence without teaching the state-mandated curriculum,” Zarelli said. “If we are not going to allow local districts to make a choice on their sex education curriculum, we should allow for the successful abstinence education to continue to be taught, and taught separately.”

SSB 5297 would require school districts to teach sexual education under state guidelines produced by the state Department of Health and Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The measure also states that abstinence education “…may not be taught to the exclusion of other materials…”

Zarelli’s amendments would have either allowed schools to have sexual education taught by two separate presenters in separate time blocks while still maintaining a comprehensive sexual education curriculum, or give equal time to abstinence education.

Although the amendment to allow abstinence education to be taught separately was supported in the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education committee, it was voted down on the Senate floor by a 23-26 vote.

“I don’t know why we would want to kill successful abstinence programs and make them illegal in public schools,” Zarelli said. “That’s exactly what the language in the bill does. While all other parts of sexual education can be taught independently, this bill singles out abstinence education and undermines a method we know works. It’s an anti-abstinence and politically motivated bill that takes us in the wrong direction.”

Zarelli added that the bill would remove local control from what is a very personal issue.

“This is a very critical and personal topic that should be discussed between parent and child, within our families and communities and at the local level,” Zarelli said. “Instead, we now are taking this conversation away from our local schools and handing it over to the centralized bureaucracy of the Department of Health. As a father and legislator, I am extremely disheartened by the actions taken today. ”

SSB 5297 now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Posted by: Kevin Byers | Mar 8, 2007 8:43:12 AM

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Interview with Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown:

» WA Sen. Majority Leader Talks from Pacific Views
WA Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, the only Democratic Senator from Eastern Washington, goes on the record with Lynn Allen of Evergreen Politics. She shares her thoughts on the recent legislative session and the growing rift between urban and rural... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 29, 2005 11:28:23 PM

» Interview with Senator Lisa Brown from Northwest Progressive Institute Official Blog
We appreciate Senator Brown's willingess to share her thoughts and reach out to the progressive blogosphere. We're thankful for her tremendous leadership in the state Senate and her achievements in the last legislative session. [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 30, 2005 9:17:53 PM

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