Lessons learned by a rookie state legislator | My Turn

When I packed my bags and headed to Olympia in early January, I was excited and a bit nervous. I’ve been a mom, a schoolteacher and a successful business executive, but representing my neighbors as “Sen. Wellman” was a whole new ballgame.

I felt like I had won the lottery – chosen by my community to join the team of lawmakers who were on the verge of making history. Come April, I thought I’d be taking a historic vote to pass legislation to finally provide our schools the resources our children are entitled to under our state’s constitution.

After all, it had been five years since the state lost a lawsuit filed by Washington families fed up with the inadequate resources in their children’s classrooms. My election was, in part, a reflection of that frustration and I was prepared to deliver. Like most Washingtonians, I had been wondering why it was taking so long for the Legislature to fulfill the state’s constitutional duty to amply fund public education.

Well, it has now been 103 days and no grand bargain is in sight. I feel frustrated like many of you, and even angry. Too many people across our state are struggling for basic services while Republicans refuse to negotiate.

Having had the chance to see the Legislature from the inside out, I’ve learned disheartening but important lessons:

Ideology can trump good ideas

We know a majority of Washingtonians support popular ideas like quality schools, progressive tax reform, reasonable gun ownership laws, equal pay for equal work, paid family leave and safeguards for our immigrant workforce. After 103 days in Olympia, these important issues languish. I was sent to Olympia to govern, but instead the actions of my Republican colleagues in the Senate have resulted in obstructing progress. What I learned: Senate GOP leaders regularly use their meager one-vote majority to prevent the Legislature from voting on bills they know many of their members support. Sadly, I believe our state is being held hostage by a handful of ideological firebrands who keep both parties from doing the jobs they are sent here to do.

Taxes are the boogey man

Top economists have known for years that our state’s tax code protects the wealthy while placing the biggest burden on middle-class households and those barely hanging on. But I never realized how Republicans in Olympia are, frankly, obsessed with maintaining our upside-down tax laws. They talk about it, laugh about it, write about it and even call progressive tax legislation up for a vote – only to reject it with glee. GOP senators have conjured up strange imagery, portraying taxes as “monsters” attacking unsuspecting villagers. Just last week, Republicans sent a man dressed as a chicken to taunt Democratic lawmakers in their offices – all in the name of demonizing taxes. You can’t make this stuff up! Often, it seems as if protecting the wealthy from paying their fair share trumps all other issues in Olympia. What I learned: Anti-tax ideology has crippled the legislative process in Olympia. Senate Republicans preach “reform” in word but insist on an upside-down status quo in practice. Inexplicably, they stick to their “no new taxes” rhetoric even as they would actually raise taxes, as with the $15 billion gas tax package in 2015 or with their proposed massive property tax hike this year.

Because of this, I haven’t packed up my Olympia apartment quite yet. As you have probably heard, the Legislature is headed into overtime to find a compromise on school funding.

I’ve learned a lot so far, but I hope my final lesson will be about courage. We still have the chance to take a historic vote to make a generational change for our students.

Believe me, this rookie will still be swinging for the fences.

State Sen. Lisa Wellman represents the 41st Legislative District, which includes Mercer Island, Bellevue, Newcastle, and the area southeast of Lake Sammamish.