Monday, February 19, 2007

Lobby Day visits with Karen Fraser, Gary Alexander, and Kathy Haigh

On a drizzly Monday, several WEA members joined up to lobby area legislators, including Karen Fraser, Gary Alexander, and Kathy Haigh. What follows is a summary of the various Lobby Day conversations regarding WEA priorities. Not available: Brendan Williams and Sam Hunt. Not included: the conversations I wasn't a party to.

Sen. Karen Fraser, Democrat, 22nd Dist. (info)
The state wants more money. Where to get it? I know, says Chris Gregoire: public employees' pensions. Eliminating gainsharing, a practice where state workers receive additional benefits when state investments earn above a set interest point, would raise revenue for a state strapped for cash hungry for new outlays. Fraser is distressed that Gregoire and high-ranking legislators are trying to eviscerate the program. Her bill, a concession, would preserve gainsharing for teachers hired before July 1, 2007. After that, nothing.

(Want the in-depth impacts? Read the fiscal note. We're talking hundreds of millions of broken promises dollars--and this is just the compromise.)

Fraser said that gainsharing is "going down to the wire." Pressure from public employees might be the main obstacle to its elimination.

Rep. Gary Alexander, Republican, 20th Dist. (info)
Representative Alexander was glad to talk to us about compensation, and was sure to mention the issues he thinks get passed by in the ongoing conversation about ed reform: special needs and transportation. (He didn't go into much detail about the latter.) Alexander is against one-size-fits-all education, telling us how much he'd like to see stronger vocational education, but, paradoxically, not wanting to give a high school diploma to anyone who can't pass the WASL. Several times he mentioned how some students just aren't served by the current model, and yet he never acknowledged the contradiction in his support for the dubious exit exam.

When asked about gainsharing, Alexander was quick to mention HB 2116, a different sort of compromise. Right now, gainsharing kicks in when pension investments top a 10% rate of return. Under Alexander's proposal, the "trigger" would be raised to 14%, reducing the state's odds of liability by almost two thirds. (A 14% rate of return is 64% less likely. Read the whole fiscal note if you dare. Alexander noted that the legality of the proposition--having different gainsharing options for old and new hires--is under investigation.) I asked Alexander what would replace gainsharing as a recruiting tool if it were done away with. He didn't really have an answer.

One bill Alexander is sponsoring would allow students who pass the WASL to skip the "intermediate" step of their licensing [pdf], the time when they can drive only during limited hours and without young passengers. Another secondarily sponsored by Alexander would force the legislature to determine proper education funding before passing an omnibus appropriation--in essence, making education a priority not just in emphasis, but in time. (Alexander didn't talk about either bill during our chat.)

In all, Alexander offered tentative support for some WEA concerns, especially in the area of fully funding education.

Rep. Kathy Haigh, Democrat, 35th Dist. (info)
Kathy Haigh, chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, kept pulling out a copy of the budget whenever we'd ask about upcoming agenda items. She declared her support for smaller class sizes for K-3 classes, and said she wanted to commit $50 million in the upcoming session to fund all-day kindergarten, at least for free and reduced lunch students. She "totally support[s] the simple majority" for levies, which would give rural districts greater ability to fund classroom renovations and technological upgrades. (Last year she cosponsored a similar bill that passed the House only to fail in the Senate.)

When we brought up pensions, she admitted, "I don't know anything about gainsharing. I'm not in the middle of that fight."

It's a good year for state government, which means that everyone wants a piece of the lasagna.
"It's a lot harder when you have a bunch of money," says Victor Moore, the governor's budget director and former House Appropriations staff director. "When you don't have money, there is a simple response to why you're not giving them anything. When there's money, you have to make arguments about priorities, why this investment and not another. It's tough and everybody wants their little $10 million appropriation."
Today the WEA was another voice in a cacophony of concerns, requests, and demands. When dozens of interest groups descend on the Capitol in a day, it's easy for issues to get lost in the noise. Union members who want their needs met have to keep contacting their legislators beyond Lobby Day, to keep reminding them of their promises to constituents and their obligations to the state's "paramount duty."

Sidebar: Among the more colorful and obnoxious interest groups were the Where's the Math folks, parading kids around as political props and chanting on the Capitol steps. One middle-aged demonstrator sported a placard reading, "Less Words! More Numbers!"

That would be fewer words. If only they'd had a writing WASL thirty years ago.

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