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January 09, 2006

At the Legislative Helm – Interview with Majority Leader Lisa Brown

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown is a smart, savvy leader and she is willing to take risks in both what she says and what she does.  Her perspective as a legislator from Eastern Washington, along with her statewide focus in her Majority Leader role and her background as an economist and as a professor at Gonzaga, gives her a breadth of vision about what is going on all over the state.  All of this makes her a very interesting person to sit down and talk with for 45 minutes prior to the legislative session.   

Lisa does not hesitate to full-out support the Civil Rights bill that missed passing last session by one vote.  Indeed she brings it up as her biggest priority for this session.  Our interview took place last Wednesday, the 4th, two days before Senator Finkbeiner, who just resigned as Senate Minority Leader, said he was planning on supporting HB1515, the anti-discrimination bill.  Last session none of the Republican Senators supported the bill.  This should make it a lot easier to pass than any of us expected.  She also talks about the likely situation in the legislature related to the Supreme Court’s possible ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which could come down any time.

In the interview, Senator Brown provides a great deal of background on the issues related to the WASL tests, which complements what Governor Gregoire said in the interview I did with her a few weeks ago.  Another particularly interesting item was new to me – a potential bill requiring the governor to prepare a Tax Expenditure Report that looks at what we in the state get back for various tax breaks handed out, particularly to business.  It seems like a good start at getting a handle on reining in some overdue business breaks while understanding the value of others.

Lisa also talks about what’s going on across the state, reminding us that we have high-tech in Spokane and a growing wine industry in the Tri-Cities area.  She talks about other, innovative programs planned, a bonus from having a Democratic governor and slim but viable margins in both Houses.  The interview is after the fold.  My previous interview with her from last June is available in our archives.   

Interview with Lisa Brown, 1/4/06

Q: Thanks for talking with me.  Let’s begin with the last session.  As you look back, how do you access what you did last year?

LB: It was tremendously successful.  We accomplished significant things in several areas.  We passed a law that lowered auto emissions and we passed the green buildings bill.  Both were critical.

In health care, we passed a mental health parity bill and we developed a goal of insuring all children in the state by 2010.

In education, we’ve been able to start the “Wash Learns”program, we supported the lower class sizes that had been mandated by Initiative 728, and we provided major financial aid for Higher Education. 

Q: And what are you planning for this session?

LB:  We are looking at the goal of getting more people insured.  The cost of healthcare is a huge dilemma.  The governor has proposals on cost.  We are looking to partner with small businesses to offer healthcare, looking at something where the state might help: the employer pays a certain amount; the employee pays a certain amount and the state bridges the gap. 

In education, we have a critical point with respect to the WASL test.  We can’t predict the outcome of the discussion.  We know that school administrators and businesses want to keep the WASL as a requirement.  Teachers, the WEA and parents have concerns about enforcing the WASL requirements stringently, as do communities of color. 

We are looking to keep standards.  It is a tool that we can use.  It isn’t perfect.  We are listening to peoples’ concerns and trying to respond to them.  We will have to deal with how to assist students who are having difficulties. 

It also reveals the under-lying issue of how to narrow the gaps between schools in affluent areas and those in non-affluent areas.  There have been recent gains in ethnic communities but there is still more to do. 

Q:  What else do you want to accomplish in this session?

LB:  My top priority is to pass the civil rights bill.  It got to the floor in the last session and lost by one vote. 

In a related issue, we may be receiving the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Definition of Marriage Act (DOMA).  It passed the legislature in 1998 saying “marriage is between a man and a woman.”  The Governor vetoed it and it was overruled.  In 2004, two judges ruled that the DOMA law was unconstitutional under the Washington State constitution. 

If the court says the bill is unconstitutional, it will come back to the legislature.  The legislators run the gamut of views from full equality to believing we need a constitutional amendment prohibiting marriage between same sex couples.  It is unlikely we will reach an agreement in this session.  The court could say “The bill is unconstitutional and the counties can issue marriage certificates.”  More likely, they will say it’s unconstitutional and send it back to the legislature to decide what to do. 

We are not going to be able to get the votes to allow gay marriages this year.  That could change over time.  It’s an issue that we are going to have to clarify statewide.  We need a public dialogue on what it means.  I believe that most people are uncomfortable with same sex marriage because of religious perspectives.  Yet they are also uncomfortable saying what others should do.  They are conflicted about separating out the religious and civil views. 

Q: What else is important?

LB: We will be focusing on energy independence this session.  We will be looking at what the state can do to stimulate biodiesel supply and demand.  We are likely to look at providing assistance on energy costs for low-income folks within the first few days. 

We will also be looking at emergency preparedness in the state.

Q: How do you see your role?  In our last interview in June of last year, you talked about being the conductor of the orchestra. 

LB:  Well, I wear different hats.  I have my own perspective on issues.  I am sometimes charged to speak on behalf of the Senate Democrats.  Then I have my role as Majority Leader where it is my job to help see the process through to the end.  So it is not an issue of getting my way.  My role is to help clarify the alternatives. 

Q: You are an economist.  What do you foresee economically in this state?

LB:  We are trying to understand the implications of the global economy for Washington State.  For example, aerospace is huge in this state but it is not all about Boeing.   Spokane has almost as many subcontractors working for Airbus as they have working for Boeing. 

The economics of a career has shifted for individuals as well.  People don’t get a job for their entire career as my Dad did when he went to work for an oil refinery when he was young and stayed there until he retired.

We have to think differently about training and education.  If we wait to train someone until after they’ve been laid off, we’re too late. 

Q:  I want to go on to the issues of tax breaks and our tax structure.  There have been some questions about how tax breaks are used in this state.  What are you looking at?

LB:  We are having that conversation about how we use the tax structure for business and economic purposes.  Tax breaks are not all good or all bad.  We are looking at making certain that any tax breaks we provide are targeted – that they require accountability and ensure that employers who receive tax breaks provide good jobs with good benefits for their employees.   

The Senate is considering passing a bill requiring the governor to provide a Tax Expenditure Report so that we can understand the value that we in the state receive for any tax breaks that we provide to business.

The tax structure in this state is a huge issue.  We have a large gross tax on business.  We have high sales taxes.  At some point that tax structure issue will have to be confronted.

Q:  You are from Eastern Washington.  That gives you a good perspective on what happens across the state.  What do you see? 

LB:  Let’s start with agriculture which is still the largest industry in this state when you add in all the aspects of it.  Agriculture is at a critical point.  We are hopeful that the entire biodiesel issue raises the profile of agriculture throughout the state.

The base of our economy has changed.  Spokane’s economy used to be based on mining and logging.  We are now looking at the quality of life there and encouraging other industries to come in.  We already have a healthy high-tech segment and a lot of healthcare companies.  We are in the midst of re-capturing the urban area, the residential areas and are seeing the river as a major attraction.  There is a challenge in terms of cleaning up the Spokane Basin which requires co-operation with Idaho since Spokane is downstream from major Idaho cities.  Governor Gregoire recently appointed Jay Manning, head of the Department of Ecology to sit on a Basin Commission to discuss these issues.  This is critical because it indicates that this issue is important for us as a state.   

In Central Washington, the wine industry is taking off, especially around the Tri-Cities area.  It’s not just Puget Sound and the Spokane area picking up again economically.

Then we have water issues in each part of the state.  We have the Puget Sound clean-up beginning; we have acknowledged the need for clean-up in the Spokane Basin and we have a need for irrigation in Central Washington.  So clean-water issues and how much water we have is critical across the state.

I see our time is up.  Thank you for taking time to do this.

Posted by Lynn Allen on January 9, 2006 at 12:17 PM in Interviews | Permalink

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