OLYMPIA -- This place, the state capital, is the center of the universe for 105 days, at least for Washington residents.
It is the location of an incredible convergence of energy, vitality, intellect, conflict and debate. It is a place where our lives are guided by laws enacted by this state's Legislature.
Lawmakers swarmed here Jan. 13 to begin the 58th session of the Legislature. They will remain for at least 105 days of the regular session and likely move into special session after that.
Lobbyists swarmed here at the same time. The public, or at least a special interest group of the public -- 22,000 to 25,000 members of the Washington Education Association -- swarmed through the capital city the second day of the session.
The Olympian newspaper reported that the WEA rally was the largest demonstration in the capital city's history. The rally horde marched up Capitol Way, virtually paralyzing downtown Olympia by their numbers. Their show of force was intended to support increased spending on education and oppose a temporary suspension of voter initiatives that would add money to teacher salaries and reduce class sizes.
An anti-tax rally was conducted on the same day around the Tivoli Fountain, closer to the Capitol building. Sponsors of the rally, which attracted about 100 people, were Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. Foundation president Bob Williams, a former Woodland area resident who made a run for governor several years ago, told The Olympian he was unsure of the effect his rally would have on lawmakers. He said he didn't see the governor and legislature "going for a tax increase right now."
Some 200 members of an anti-war rally swarmed onto the Capitol campus the third day of the session. The noisy entourage appeared outside the windows of a hearing room in the John L. O'Brien building, delaying the start of a workshop on higher-education funding. They were moved away by police and the Capitol security forces.
If this first week is an indication, the capital will be a place of extraordinary excitement now through April. Special interest groups will be very visible as various organizations, public and private, strive to prevent the budget ax from falling on education programs and social and health services, among the obvious.
However, something has to give in a budget year with the revenue shortfall ranging from $ 2.4 billion to $ 3 billion. Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, has proposed what he considers a realistic but severe budget with no new taxes. One Republican legislator said Locke sounded like a Republican in his State of the State message.
Public access difficult
Watching the process unfold this year will be difficult, at least in person. Thanks in part to the Nisqually earthquake of February 2001, the Legislature is not nearly as accessible as in previous sessions. The Capitol building, housing both the House and Senate chambers, is under renovation and earthquake repair, and not open to the public. House members are meeting in temporary quarters, and the Senate is meetings in the Joel Pritchard Building. Neither has a public gallery, so viewing is through closed-circuit television.
Public tours of the Capitol Campus, continue, though. Hearings will still be open to the public, if people can get into the usually packed Senate and House hearing rooms. Security is tighter than ever, and Washington State Patrol troopers, among other legislative guardians, were much in evidence last week.
Still, it's stimulating just to walk on the open Capitol grounds and stroll through the open space between the Senate and House office buildings.
The message is clear for all: Pay attention this year, more than ever before, and react to your legislators. Attend local town hall meetings hosted by legislators. The course set in Olympia will be the course that affects your life.