The governor’s signature on the 2012 supplemental operating budget wasn’t even a day old when the state Capitol was rocked this month with news that Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown will not seek re-election this fall. A Spokane stalwart and a 20-year veteran of the Legislature, Brown is only the latest in a growing line of announced retirements and departures from the Legislature.
Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield added to that list Friday, when on the final day of the filing week he shockingly announced he will not see re-election. The ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Zarelli is one of the smartest and most thoughtful people in the statehouse on all things related to the state budget.
In all, more than two dozen legislators have decided to give up their seats this year. Those in higher education circles will recognize the names of a few others on that list, perhaps most notably Rep. Phyllis Kenney of Seattle, Rep. Glenn Anderson of Fall City and Sen. Jim Kastama of Puyallup. Others, such as Craig Pridemore of Vancouver, have championed the urban campuses WSU has developed in their communities.
The list goes on and may grow longer, depending on how the cards fall in November. Two other higher education advocates in the Senate – Mike Baumgartner of Spokane and Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor – are seeking federal office. And Sen. Jerome Delvin of Richland, a longtime supporter of WSU Tri-Cities, is seeking local office.
A new look for the legislature
It’s already clear that the Legislature that convenes in January will look significantly different than the one that adjourned last month. While all departing legislators deserve our gratitude for their public service and are to be congratulated on their well-earned retirement or wished well as they seek out other opportunities, the losses we know about and those still to come are acutely felt in this office. Their departures come at a time of uncommon momentum for higher education in Washington, momentum many of these legislators helped generate.
After years of disinvestment and declining state participation, the higher education sector enjoyed a watershed year of sorts in Olympia during the 2012 legislative session. Facing still another budget shortfall hundreds of millions of dollars deep, the Legislature put the brakes on higher education’s previously unstoppable descent.
The budget it approved and the governor signed included no general reductions to our state’s colleges and universities and kept our financial aid programs whole to support students. It was a remarkable – even stunning – achievement considering the very difficult budget environment legislators found themselves in when the session began Jan. 9.
Their decision recognized that higher education is a part of the solution to the long-term economic problems facing our society. They recognized that our students need more education than ever before, not less. They recognized that our employers are thirsting for a highly-educated and well-trained workforce. And their budget reflects the critical importance a research university plays in protecting the industries we have and building new ones for the future.
To lose so many leaders at this time is unfortunate. And as citizens of this state, we will all lose in other ways, too.
Loss of institutional memory
Legislators departing this year take with them years of institutional memory. It’s a precious commodity in Olympia hallways and meeting rooms that can’t simply be bought or acquired. It must be earned.
It’s a commodity that promotes good government by driving sound policy-making in a place where there are very few new ideas. In short, it’s a commodity that makes the Legislature work.
At WSU, we will continue to enjoy the many strong relationships we’ve built in Olympia and will eagerly embrace the challenge of building new ones. We will welcome the new infusion of talent that arrives at the Capitol every two years and will encourage new legislators to build upon the momentum that their predecessors have generated for higher education.
But before we do it is appropriate that we recognize the strong contributions of those who are cleaning out their legislative offices for the last time. It’s often forgotten that the work they’ve performed is truly a service to their state.
In turn, their state owes them a debt of gratitude.
And so do I.