Thursday, September 24, 2020
Sept. 24, 2020

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Legislators maintain not-so-secret civilian identities

Months in Olympia make it hard to find, hold ordinary jobs

By , Columbian Political Writer
Published:
5 Photos
Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, uses a recent lunch break to meet with Mayor Tim Leavitt at Vancouver City Hall to discuss the 2016 legislative session.
Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, uses a recent lunch break to meet with Mayor Tim Leavitt at Vancouver City Hall to discuss the 2016 legislative session. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

On a recent December day, state Sen. Annette Cleveland took a 7:30 a.m. call to chat with housing advocates about the lack of affordable housing in the region.

By 9 a.m., she was at her desk at Legacy Health, her main job and source of income, where she acts as the federal government affairs officer.

The lunch hour was spent meeting with fellow legislators and community members discussing healthcare.

Then, back to the office where she ate her actual lunch at her desk. She took a 10 minute late-afternoon break to speak with a reporter.

After clocking out, the Vancouver Democrat drove straight to a holiday gathering to speak with constituents.

Welcome to the life and schedule of a citizen legislator — it’s hectic by design.

The idea is to have the state Capitol filled by people who are juggling life’s responsibilities, similar to the people they represent.

“If we didn’t have a Legislature that was part time, I think we would end up, for better or worse, having either retired or independently wealthy legislators that don’t have to work,” Cleveland said. “We need people who have to work and understand what it means to work hard to pay your bills.”

And, said state Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, “I don’t think we want just rich cats to be legislators.”

Every January, lawmakers head to Olympia for either 60 days, in even-numbered years, or 105 days in the odd-numbered years.

But it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the Washington Legislature to adjourn on time. The 2015 legislative session broke a record in Washington for the longest in a single year, with three overtime sessions. In 2013, the session stretched to the end of June and adjourned after two special sessions, with the state on the brink of shutting down. Overtime sessions not only cost the state money, but they are making it harder for lawmakers to keep their day jobs.

It’s a product of divided government, but also lawmakers’ own doing. Both sides of the aisle agree it’s better to adjourn on schedule.

“There is a famous saying, ‘Hang on to your wallets while the Legislature is in session,’ ” state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, said. “The faster we can get there and adjourn, the less harmful rules and regulations we’re going to pass on to our citizens.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures, a nongovernmental organization, categorizes Washington as having a hybrid Legislature, meaning lawmakers spend more than two-thirds of a full-time job being legislators and usually still need another source of income to make a living. California, in contrast, has a full-time Legislature, paying lawmakers on average about $97,200 a year. In Washington, most lawmakers make $45,474 annually for their legislative work and will soon make $46,839. They also receive a daily stipend for food and lodging while in session.

When the session goes into overtime, Cleveland dips into her vacation days.

State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, scaled back his work schedule as a chemical dependency counselor to part time not long after he was first elected.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who is on the hunt for a job outside the Legislature and holds a leadership position in the Senate, is having a hard time defining her schedule for potential employers.

“People want to know they can count on their workforce they have to be dependable and show up,” Rivers said. “I’ve been so accessible to my constituency that it makes it hard to make those kind of commitments.”

Harris, who is in medical sales and also holds a leadership position in the House, lost a work contract when the previous legislative session ran long.

“I don’t want to whine, because I signed up for this,” Harris said. “But it’s difficult finding an employer that says, ‘Yeah, Paul, go away for who knows how long and come back and I’ll have a job for you.’ I believe the public wants a part-time legislator. … I want connections with the community and what’s going on, and I want a real job, but I have to be honest with you, it’s difficult.”

Lawmakers kick off the 2016 legislative session Jan. 11. It’s slated to last 60 days.

Start the countdown clock.

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