Unpacking Government: Why Does Washington State Have A Part-Time Legislature?

Jan 30, 2017

The two little boys in the photo on state Rep. Matt Manweller’s window sill are wearing capes as they play on the sidewalk outside the John L. O’Brien Building on Olympia’s Capitol campus.

“My two little superheroes,” the Ellensburg Republican says of his young sons. “They used to be a fixture here in Olympia. They would be clamoring out on the House floor, wanting to push my voting button. But now they have school.”

They’re 6 and 7 now, and back in Ellensburg. Being away from family for a few months every year is par for the course for many of Washington’s state lawmakers. That’s because Washington has a part-time Legislature.

Officially, we’re called a “hybrid” state. Lawmakers only meet in the capital only for a few months, before going back home to their districts and, in many cases, their full-time jobs. But many legislative staff stay all year. Washington is among 22 states that use this model.

“These populist-era founding fathers did not want a professional, permanent political class. They wanted us to come here, pass laws, and then go live under those laws,” Manweller said. “They wanted a Legislature that was full of cops and firefighters and teachers and farmers, all who had real jobs and never got so isolated in the political government world that they forgot where they came from.”

Populism and Practicality

Seven days after Washington became a state, the first governor took office. There’s a photo of this moment on the wall of the State Archives. Horses and buggies are in the foreground. In the background, some cows graze in a pasture. The center of the photo shows a white clapboard house surrounded by a picket fence. Hundreds of people fill the yard, watching Gov. Elisha P. Ferry take the oath.

The inauguration of Washington state's first governor, Elisha P. Ferry, on Nov. 18, 1889. That white building was the state's first Capitol.
Credit Washington State Archives

Back in these days, lawmakers met every other year. State archivist Steve Excell says it was a move borne out of both the populism Manweller mentioned and just plain old 19th century practicality.

“Most of the people who served in the Legislature were farmers, ranchers, lawyers, business people, loggers,” Excell said. “You had to earn a living to survive.”

Staying in Olympia year-round just wasn’t an option. Hard work was waiting back home. And getting to and from Olympia was no picnic, either.

“If you’re traveling to Olympia, you’re most likely traveling on horseback, or you might be traveling with a buggy,” he said.

Think about that: You’re not cruising down I-90 in your sedan; you’re riding an animal, or being pulled by one, over the Cascade Mountains. Or maybe you’re taking a boat up the Deschutes River, or down Puget Sound.

The Legislature met every other year until 1980. Excell says in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Gov. Dan Evans kept calling special sessions to fulfill an ambitious agenda for state government.

In 1979, voters approved annual gatherings for the Legislature. It took effect the following year.

Part-Time(ish)

Being in the Legislature is a balancing act.

“Under no circumstances is serving in the Washington state Legislature a part-time job,” said state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma.

She takes a leave of absence from her job with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department every year. Outside of the session, Jinkins says she often spends early mornings, lunchtimes, evenings, weekends and some vacations working on legislative issues.

Jinkins says her work outside of Olympia gives her some expertise when she’s considering legislation on public health issues.

But it can cut both ways. One criticism of a part-time Legislature is that lawmakers might be more tempted to represent their industry than the people of their district. Jinkins says more often than not, she sees the opposite: people using their expertise to push back on industries they know well.

“If you’re good at your legislative job, that’s what you do,” she said. “You’re going to be aligned with [other industries], because that’s where you come from, but you also are going to push back on them when what they ask for is not reasonable.”

She says there are other problems, too. For example, the salary – about $45,000 a year – might appeal only to certain demographics, such as the very young or the retired. But overall, Jinkins says having lawmakers in session for part of the year works well. Lawmakers spend a lot of time in their districts which gives them good insight into the views of their constituents. They have outside lives to support, and are aware of how the laws they pass might affect regular citizens.

Off-Campus

In the city of Olympia, outside the boundaries of the Capitol campus, the session brings some changes. Hotels can fill up, especially if there’s a big rally or lobbying effort underway. And bars and restaurants get a little boost in business.  

“Then the session starts up and helps keep us steady throughout the end of winter, into spring,” said Heidi Smith, manager of the Spar Café.

The Spar has been downtown Olympia since 1935. Its copper bar and built-in humidors are opposite a wall of wooden booths, some of which have curtains on them for privacy. You can almost picture old-time lawmakers in here with tumblers of alcohol, sorting out problems, or striking deals over legislation.

“I’m sure that’s happened here a lot,” she says.

For lawmakers, being in Olympia can be a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity to interact with colleagues from across the state.

“We all come from different walks of life,” said state Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick.

Visitors and staff walk through the Legislative Building, beneath the rotunda, at Washington state's Capitol Campus in Olympia.
Credit Ed Ronco / KNKX

She first ran for office when her kids cajoled her to do something, after hearing her complain about politics during a drive to school. Outside Olympia, she works in portfolio management for Mission Support Alliance, an engineering firm that’s working on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

She, like the other lawmakers we talked to, credits her employer with giving her flexibility to serve in Olympia.

“People have said it is kind of like going away to college,” Brown said. “Except you don’t get to sleep in and nobody’s cooking the meals for you.”

And much like a college, there are busy times and slow times.

On this Monday in January, the Capitol – officially, “The Legislative Building” – is abuzz with activity. Underneath its enormous rotunda, school groups, lobbyists and constituents are chatting away, their voices bouncing off the Alaskan marble on the walls and floor. Outside, thousands shout messages opposing abortion during a midday rally on the front steps of the Capitol, as counter-demonstrators shout their messages from the steps of the state Supreme Court.

Scenes just like this will play out almost daily between now and mid-April. Then, barring a special session, it’s back home for the 147 members of the House and Senate, to jobs, families, constituents, and the not-so-part-time job of representing their districts.

This piece is a segment in our series, "Unpacking Government," which airs every Monday.

Correction: This story originally misidentified Sen. Sharon Brown's employer. The company name originally used is the owner of the company Brown works for.