In Our View: Citizen Legislator

Hazel Dell home baker takes her case to politicians, and helps them take action

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Maybe it’s time to rethink the old maxim that you can’t fight City Hall. Instead of fighting the powers that be — in this case, the state Legislature — maybe it’s better to work with them.

Sometimes, we lowly citizens can come up with some good ideas and wield more power than we had imagined.

That is one of the lessons learned recently by Felicia Hill, a Hazel Dell woman who played a key role in altering a state law.

Hill had a budding business making and decorating peanut-, gluten-, and dairy-free cakes. She started making the specialty cakes for friends and family, and when she looked into turning it into an occupation, she was confronted by the kind of bureaucracy that is the bane of small business.

She found that giving away home-baked items is legal, but if she wanted to sell them, she would have to bake in a commercial kitchen. That would require the construction of a kitchen that, according to Hill, would cost between $40,000 and $50,000. She also discovered that renting a commercial kitchen would not be economically feasible.

Talk about government discouraging small business.

But rather than let the law bury her ambition, Hill decided to do something about it. She learned that state Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, had introduced a bill to allow small-scale bakers to sell goods they made at home.

What originated out of Hill’s desire to bake a birthday cake for her son, who has a severe peanut allergy, had grown into a newfound role as an activist.

Initially, Rockefeller’s bill would allow home bakers to sell goods worth up to $5,000 over the course of a year. Hill argued for a $15,000 cap, and she testified in front of the Legislature in support of the idea.

“I went up to Olympia, and based on my testimony, the bill was changed,” Hill told Business editor Courtney Sherwood for a recent article in The Columbian. The bill was passed and signed into law, with Hill standing alongside Gov. Chris Gregoire at the signing ceremony.

And along the way, Hill provided an important civics lesson.

The change in the law is perfectly reasonable, leading to questions about what took so long. The previous law was an abject lesson in the overreach of government, in well-intended legislation that hampers the creation and development of small businesses and cottage industries.

In an age when government provides lip service to assisting small businesses while legislative actions encourage the development of huge corporations that squeeze out mom-and-pop operations — the traditional backbone of the American economy — it is a welcome sight to see some common sense prevail.

But the bill does more than that. It also offers a reasonable compromise between encouraging small business and protecting the public. The new law requires home-based cooks to obtain food handler permits and have their kitchens inspected by the Department of Agriculture. In addition to ingredient lists and net weight, labels will need to disclose that the food was baked in a home kitchen that does not meet the same standards as commercial kitchens.

That is a perfectly sensible compromise. One of government’s most important functions is to monitor the food supply and ensure the health of the public. By including this provision in the bill, the legislature adhered to its role in the area of public health, while providing some leeway for start-up or part-time businesses.

Look at it this way: Even Mrs. Fields must have started small. Maybe someday, Mrs. Hill’s Cakes will be a household name.

“I was never a political person before,” Hill said. “I learned it’s true that one person can make a difference. I did. I changed the law.”

Sometimes, some good comes out of a willingness to work with City Hall, er, um, the state Legislature.