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‘Things are different this time’
by AMANDA WINTERSSequim Gazette
The capitol campus in Olympia sparkled with the frozen condensation of a February morning last week. But inside the offices of Reps. Steve Tharinger and Kevin Van De Wege, both D-Sequim, things were heating up.
For the first time Sequim is the hometown to both representatives of Washington’s 24th District. Those representatives are facing a whopping $4.6 billion budget shortfall and nothing but tough choices ahead. For the 2009-2011 budget, legislators made devestating cuts to cover a $9 billion defecit, leaving little fat left to trim.
As they near the mid-point of Washington’s 105-day legislative session, their days are filled with committee meetings to make changes to or shut down any of the 800-odd bills proposed in the House of Representatives, 15-minute sit-downs with constituents pleading for funding for their most beloved programs, and an endless string of impromptu hallway meetings with an assortment of characters as they rush across campus for the aforementioned activities.
“The pace is a little faster than I thought,” first-term Tharinger said. “The process is deliberative and slow but the information and activity is fast.”
Van De Wege, fighting a flu bug and straining his voice more and more as the day went on, said he tried to catch a quick nap in his office Sunday afternoon when he had a fever but it didn’t work out. As majority whip, the three-term legislator is continually in demand.
Tharinger’s legislative assistant, Billie Toyra, said she typically works 11-hour days but knows it will be more than that as the session continues.
“I expect to stay here into the wee hours of the morning,” she said.
Toyra’s face was only partially visible above the partition that separated her desk from the two-chair-and-a-coatrack waiting area in the temporary office of Tharinger.
Though representatives normally have offices in the O’Brien Building, remodeling of the 1930s-era edifice pushed them into a series of double-stacked modular structures connected by a maze of porches and stairs.
Toyra, a 22-year-old American University graduate, is Tharinger’s right hand. She handles his schedule, takes his phone calls and acts as a liaison with constituents.
That day Tharinger’s schedule covered both sides of his blue card, a blue piece of paper legislators carry around with the time and place of all appointments. Some days he carries around three double-sided blue cards.
Just before 8 a.m. Tharinger left the office, walking through the maze of mods to the O’Brien Building to spend the next two hours in the House Environment Committee.
Before he made it to the O’Brien Building door he was approached by Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, who wanted to discuss a meeting dilemma. Their breath formed clouds in the air as they blended into the steady stream of suit-clad politicos.
In committee Tharinger sat in the front row between Takko and Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. For 90 minutes, with his head propped up by his left hand, Tharinger listened to public testimony on two bills: HB 1496 and HB 1712. After, the legislators broke into caucus groups to decide how to vote on two other bills: HB 1307 and HB 1489. Tharinger voted yes on both — the first concerning standards for the use of science in support of public policy, the second limiting the use of fertilizer containing phosphorus.
“There’s so much process you have to go through to introduce and pass a bill,” Tharinger said on the walk back to his office, his breath still visible in the 10 a.m. air.
You write the bill, get other legislators to sign on to it, send it to the majority leader who sends it to multiple committees who make changes or kill it, and if you’re lucky, it will go to a House vote during the same session, he said.
Tharinger said he normally has 40 bills to go through every day by 2 p.m. if he wants to sign on.
“There’s a lot of ways to stop things from happening here,” he said during a meeting with United Way leaders. “It’s set up to be a long process. It takes a lot of time to do something big.”
Jody Moss and Sandy Long of United Way of Clallam County had a standard 15-minute meeting with Tharinger to urge him to support the continued funding of several early childhood programs that face elimination under Gov. Gregoire’s budget proposal.
“Our hope is not to eliminate these programs completely,” Tharinger said, asking Moss to pick which programs she would choose to save if she had to.
Moss reluctantly said she would pick the Working Connections Child Care and Home Visitation programs.
“I don’t think people really grasp what a big number $4.6 billion is,” Tharinger said, referring to the budget gap.
Later, while listening to a group from Olympic Community Action Programs, he put it in perspective.
Amanda Sanders, a foster parent with two children in the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program, said the programs support her as well as her foster children.
“I could not have these children if I didn’t have these programs,” she said.
Tharinger said he sup-ports OlyCAP’s early childhood and family help programs but these are tough times.
“We could shut down all public higher education and that would only take care of $2 billion,” he said.
Legislators just don’t have any good choices left, he said.
“We need to have that discussion in the greater community,” he said of the funding dilemma. “They voted against a 2 cent soda tax. That was $800,000 that would’ve helped fund those programs.”
Lunch with pages
Tharinger always takes the stairs in the capitol building. He said it’s the only way to fit exercise into his schedule. Four flights of stairs later he entered the House Chamber to take pictures with pages Kaitlyn Lehrkind, of Aberdeen, Seth Olson, of Montesano, and John Reid, of Port Townsend.
“We’re really early,” Toyra said, pointing out they had five minutes before Van De Wege was scheduled to show up for the photos.
Tharinger killed time by talking with the pages. He found they all shared a common love of the cookies from the House cafeteria.
After posing for photos, Van De Wege led the way to his office, up a dark, spiraling marble staircase behind the front of the House Chambers.
The pages were treated to a picnic-style lunch with sandwiches, sodas and chips. Between bites of his whole-wheat sandwich, Van De Wege asked Reid what he wanted to do after high school.
Reid, a high school freshman, said he we wanted to go to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Tharinger shared a story about his college days in Colorado Springs, referring jokingly to himself and his schoolmates as “hippies.”
As goalie for the University of Colorado ice hockey team, Tharinger said he played against the Air Force team often.
“Did they even have planes back then?” Van De Wege asked Tharinger, who is 25-years his senior, evoking laughter from the room.
Later in the day Van De Wege’s legislative assistant, 47-year-old Linda Barnfather of Sequim, said some pages don’t get the chance to see their legislators during the week they work at the capitol.
“That (having lunch with pages) isn’t something all reps do but it is important to Kevin,” she said.
After working his way through the ranks, Van De Wege became majority whip for the House Democrats after winning a third term in November.
Van De Wege said he is required to attend a handful of leadership meetings each week, on top of his normal legislative duties.
“It’s good to have influence, it just means more to do,” he said.
Like Tharinger, he has 15-minute meetings scheduled throughout the day with constituents looking to secure his support for funding their interest.
“You basically have 15 minutes to plead your case,” Barnfather said.
In a meeting with Heidi Eisenhour of the Jefferson Land Trust, Van De Wege said his proposal to require day use fees for state parks is the only solution that has been presented to keep the parks open.
“Things are different this time,” he said. “There is no other funding.”
During his General Government Appropriations Committee meeting in the O’Brien Building, Van De Wege listened to a 20-minute presentation on the budget challenges faced by the state Department of Fish and Game. The department is facing nearly $12 million in cuts under the governor’s proposed budget.
Van De Wege later pointed out that while the governor’s budget is only a starting point and the final budget is up to the Legislature, it provides a realistic outlook.
“There’s no money to do a lot of the stuff people are asking for,” he said on the walk back to his office in the capitol building.
‘We don’t envy you’
With the inevitable cuts coming down the line to countless basic needs programs, Van De Wege said he wants to make sure a safety net is maintained for the people of the 24th District.
He wants to keep state parks and public lands open for public enjoyment. He wants to ensure government is cut and made more efficient without hurting basic services like education.
One of his last meetings was with the same OlyCAP group that met with Tharinger earlier in the day.
They told the same stories, capitalized on the same points and made the same request: Fund our programs.
But this time they had something else to add.
“We don’t envy you your position,” said Janet Anderson, chief operating officer of OlyCAP.
“It’s not easy,” Van De Wege replied.
“There will be better days,” she assured.
Reach Amanda Winters at email@example.com.