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Righting the ship of state 

by Jerry Hughes


Last spring, when we last monitored the log of the good ship Olympia, a frantic "Mayday" signal had just been broadcast. At that perilous moment, Washington's ship of state was dangerously foundering in stormy political seas. Captain Gary Locke was inexplicably absent from the ship's wheelhouse, and her legislative crew was deserting the ship, both fore and aft.


It's clear now that she needs to go into dry dock for a complete overhaul. Here are some suggestions for making the Washington State Legislature more effective and better able to address the significant challenges facing this state.





A Professional Legislature


In the world of state governments, there are three basic legislative models: the professional model, the citizen model and the hybrid model.


Ten states employ the professional model, which features full-time legislators with relatively high pay and large staffs. Professional legislatures, which include those in larger states like California and New York and states similar to Washington in size like Wisconsin and Massachusetts, generally have stable membership and a track record for responding to needs. Seventeen states use the citizen model, in which legislators serve part-time for low pay and have few staffers. These states, including Idaho and Montana, generally have higher turnover rates. The remaining 23 states, including Washington, use the hybrid model, which lies somewhere between the professional and citizen models.


History suggests that the professional model would better serve the citizens of this state. Recent studies of the Washington State Legislature by the National Conference of State Legislatures reveal high turnover rates and low productivity levels (fewer than 16 percent of the bills offered have been enacted in recent years). Washington seems to be taking the "first, do no harm" maxim to a ridiculous extreme, as in, "first, do nothing."


Legislators have been tamed to nearly crippling levels of tentativeness from the constant second-guessing that comes from annual statewide initiatives, which are being used inappropriately to micromanage the budget writers. Unfortunately, this is no time to be tentative. The state's health care system is in crisis, the roads are a wreck and no municipality or state agency seems to have a solution. The tax system is a regressive hodgepodge, and problems associated with poverty continue to hold the state back.


Now Locke and his legislative crew are facing revenue shortfalls in the range of $1 billion annually. Indecision, illusionary revenue forecasts and a deepening recession are coming together to create a very real crisis. After a series of fruitless sessions, the bitter byproduct of myopic miscalculations, irresponsible initiatives and some head-in-the-sand leadership, it is painfully clear that reform is mandated.


Yes, the initial costs of a new professional model for the state government will be high. They will, however, be easily recouped, as a more professional legislature will be better equipped to navigate such crises. Success comes through the kind of leadership that is grounded in cogent analysis and the courage that comes from knowing you are doing what's right rather than what's popular. As with anything, you get what you pay for in state government, and to not invest in better decision-making would be penny-wise and pound-foolish.





Campaign Finance Reform


To allow professional legislators to do what's right rather than what's popular, elections must be cleaned up. Candidates cannot withstand last-minute attack campaigns paid for by shadowy groups whose reporting to the state only becomes clear weeks after the ballots are counted.


Any objective review of Washington's legislative races of 2000 offers plenty of evidence of the corrosive effects of what Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold have called "political cocaine." In 22 of these Washington state contests, the special interests launched late soft money attacks, tallying a perfect score (22 for 22) in opponents sunk. In reality, it is the general public that ultimately pays the price for these unholy auctions.


Campaign spending limitations, once a dead legal subject, have been resuscitated by recent federal and state court rulings. First Amendment rights of political expression are not limitless. Reasoned dollar limits, like the banning of soft money and placing ceilings on campaign spending, are clearly constitutionally viable. The secretive nature and the virtual untraceable track of special-interest soft money guarantees, in most cases, that we stick with the status quo, even though it has so clearly led to the current crisis in state government.


Absent the additional reform of spending limits, however, what we have seen in recent years will not change.





Opposing Term Limits Efforts


In 1992, panicking voters joined with the agitated citizens in 20 other states to enact term limits legislation. The State Supreme Court, in an insightful decision, has since turned back this ill-conceived measure. Term limits, in every sense, have always been at the disposal of the voters; in every election, they have the option to retain or reject any office holder on the ballot.


Term limits are a simplistic solution to a complex problem, and, not surprisingly, it hasn't brought the better government that people hoped for. Sure, there's the "Strom Thurmond" syndrome to consider, but term limits, unfortunately, cast the baby out with the bathwater. Such limitations compel talented people to abandon their posts and further insures institutional loss of vision and leadership -- qualities in short order on the current political landscape. You wouldn't field a pro football team made up of only rookies, so why create a system that does just that in state government? What we need is a little more tenure from capable leaders, not less.


The appropriate remedy that voters may have been after back in 1992 lies in fostering a better-informed electorate. The cornucopia of issues, the complexities of the process and the nuances of politics dictate a steep learning curve.





Transformed Media Coverage


To get people to better understand how state government works, it will take a transformation of the media and its evolving taste in what it wants to present as news. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, one silver lining was that the media seemed to abandon its frivolous attachment to celebrity news and other brain candy. Sadly, things seem to be returning to the way they were before; only time will tell if the media, like many individuals, has been truly sobered by this terrible turn of events.


Over the past decade or two, the state legislature has been covered less and less by the state's newspapers, radio and television. And when it does get notice, it often reflects superficial analysis. The state's sanctioned public television offers some in-depth analysis of issues and personalities, but its limited viewership generates only ripples in a vast sea of indifference. The Internet offers intriguing potential but is clearly inadequate at present. The print media seemingly functions as the primary source of information on the state legislature, and it represents our best hope for a new direction.


Reform is required here, too. In-depth analysis of key legislation, its progress and the calculated political moves of the legislature must be included for people to develop a clearer understanding of the challenges at hand. The picture of a legislator caught in the midst of a yawn may amuse, and hints of marital indiscretions may titillate, but they are of little consequence to good governance -- voting records and new ideas should be more noteworthy.


Transformed political coverage need not be dull, lightweight or unfocused. The Fourth Estate has the high duty to inform the public of the essential facts; education, not entertainment, ought to be its guiding principle.





Public Campaign Forums


Anyone subjected to contemporary political campaigning senses the rising tide of toxicity. If the electorate was offered focused debates with probing questioning, it would be far better equipped to make informed choices. The media must be encouraged and subsidized, prodded and legislated into offering TV and radio debate forums at viewer-friendly times. Intense, substantive questioning from knowledgeable panels of reporters and academicians would help us all separate the real leaders from the pretenders. People might be surprised, but I predict that such elevated debate would not only be embraced as a welcome change to the usual abstract campaigns of many candidates, but it would also start a public discussion that would ultimately raise the level of understanding. Again, it's education over entertainment.


Basing one's vote on the currently emaciated form of political coverage or on disingenuous TV ads is not the way to electoral excellence. The campaign mode of today all too often turns people away from the process. Truth, followed in close order by civility, is generally the first casualty of this turbulent tide.





Candidate Testing


To take this public initiative one step further, we might call for the testing of candidates on matters that will determine their success or failure on the job, from history to political science to current municipal practices.


The ancient Greeks viewed politics as the highest calling. We, too, ought to encourage the best and the brightest to choose political office. Those who govern possess a double-edged sword: they have the power to both protect and destroy. Virtually all positions of power and importance require proof of a specific knowledge prior to the transfer of authority, whether they be the requirements of a state bar or medical exam. What strained logic exempts such a fundamental prerequisite from the practice of governance?


An old legislative sage, Senator Al Bauer, who recently retired, has stated his compounding frustrations in working with a growing number of colleagues in both the state House and Senate who had little or no historical perspective or understanding of the political process. In his view, such a perspective is crucial to success in Olympia


The legislature often operates like a medical emergency room -- only in Olympia's ER, many of the "physicians" failed to study medicine. From my own first-hand observations as a member of both the state House and Senate, the weakest members tended to be those with suspect knowledge of history and political science. This may strike some as elitism, but remember that "what's past is prologue" to our political future.


Knowledge is an essential tool in critical thinking. This seems particularly applicable to government. The imposition of a test for candidates, surveying their knowledge of history and political science, appears appropriate.


The results of these surveys, along with the candidate's formal education, would become public record and be included in the media's newly enlightened coverage. I do not pretend that such a test would in itself assure quality officeholders. Character and judgment are of greater import, but a perquisite base of knowledge is an essential anchor of enlightened leadership and would give voters a clearer picture.


Retrofitted with these reforms, the noble ship of state Olympia can again set sail into the future.





Jerry Hughes represented Spokane in the Washington State Legislature as a representative and senator. He now teaches political science at Gonzaga University.

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