by Dan Richardson

Everybody grouses about politics. If not politics, then other big-picture issues -- health care, maybe, or sprawl. But the question for a given subject shouldn't be, how bad can this get, but how do we fix it?

That's the idea behind the Rainier Institute, a newly created "progressive" Washington think tank that's trying hard to steer a centrist course.

"There's kind of a void. Instead of saying more or less government, let's look at what's effective [and] try to find bipartisan, smart solutions," says Executive Director Natalee Fillinger.

The Tukwila-based group wants to cover issues statewide, too -- or, at least, the several board members from Spokane want it to. So when the Rainier Institute began organizing its second public forum -- this one on reforming the state's legislature -- they turned to Spokane.

Next week, on the Gonzaga University campus, the Rainier Institute will empanel current and former lawmakers, along with a reporter and a lobbyist. Their two-hour conversation will be about how to break soft money's grip on lawmakers, and aspects of legislative reform. In other words, explains Fillinger, what's the problem in Olympia and what can we do about it? "Not that we have an answer to it, but hey, let's kick it around," she says.

Legislative reform is well worth looking at, says Jerry Hughes, a Gonzaga political science professor, Rainier Institute board member and frequent Inlander contributor.

"We've got to galvanize the public. These problems are solvable," says Hughes. In the late-1970s and early-1980s, he was a state representative and later senator on the Democratic ticket.

Solving problems means confronting them, though. In the legislature, Hughes says, weak leadership is a continuing plague. "Its performance has been abysmal for the last five or six years."

He cites the corrupting influence of soft money -- unregulated campaign donations to political parties instead of to specific candidates -- that saps the ability of legislative leaders. Big contributors tend to back weaker-willed candidates, contends Hughes, and can pour in money to drown the opposition in attack ads. The result is that any nail that sticks up -- any reform-minded legislator, say -- gets hammered down, according to Hughes. "If you stand up and buck the system, you will get taken out."

In the 2000 elections, state office candidates raised about $22 million in direct contributions, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Political parties raised almost $24 million in soft money that year.

Among the solutions Hughes would like to see: Regulation of soft money and a full-time legislature.

That's just one issue. The Rainier Institute's point, says Hughes, is that citizens can get energized about the big issues of the day. They can form solutions from the grassroots up -- especially as the news media, he says, back off from larger public policy stories. Hughes points to "the Gauntlet," once a hallway connecting the state House and Senate chambers in Olympia, where reporters would often gather to interview legislators.

In Hughes' time, there were maybe 20 or 25 reporters gathered in the hallway; today, he says, it's more like five. "That was less than 20 years ago."

According to David Ammons, state political reporter for the Associated Press, based in Olympia since 1971, it's perhaps not as bad as Hughes suggests. While there has been a decline of press coverage -- "There's almost no television here anymore" -- a number of newspapers still maintain full-time statehouse reporters, including the Spokesman-Review, says Ammons. He concedes, however, that national polling data suggest "there is less interest by readers and newspapers in government-slash-legislative news from city councils up through Congress."

One of the expected panelists for the legislative reform session is state Sen. Lisa Brown (D-Spokane). Brown is the chairwoman of the Senate's powerful Ways and Means Committee. The Rainier Institute's guiding idea is a good one, she says: people familiar with Washington lawmaking should collectively think about big-picture ideas outside the pressure of being in the Legislature.

"One of the things you discover when you're in the legislature," says Brown, "is it's hard to be proactive. You're always responding to the latest issue or crisis."

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