State Sen. Don Benton announced in January he was retiring after serving 22 years in the Washington Legislature. It was a difficult decision, he said, given his love for public service. He placed the blame squarely on his job in Clark County.
“It has become clear to me that my current employer has decided that it is no longer desirable for me to serve in the Legislature while doing my job at the county,” Benton wrote in a statement at the time.
Benton no longer needs to juggle the two jobs. Last week, the Vancouver senator lost his job as the director of the Clark County Environmental Services as part of a reorganization of the department. But Benton likely won’t be the last local government employee who heads to Olympia; there is already another Clark County employee who announced he’s vying for a spot in the statehouse.
A scan of Benton’s schedule in the 60 days of the 2016 regular legislative session shows a hectic schedule, one that would likely leave even the most energized stretched thin.
One week in February highlights his typical schedule: On Monday and Tuesday, Benton logged 17 hours of paid time working at the county. Doing so meant he missed both Senate Transportation and Government Operations and Security Committee hearings in Olympia. On Wednesday, Benton was in Olympia for at least part of the day, attending a 1:30 p.m. Transportation Committee hearing but was absent for a 3:30 committee hearing. On Thursday, he appeared to spend the entire day in Olympia, attending committee hearings at 10 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 5:45 p.m.
The point of a citizen Legislature is to have the state Capitol filled by people who are balancing life’s responsibilities, similar to the people they represent. There are no rules or laws against a person such as Benton having two taxpayer-funded jobs. But the level of scrutiny is different.
“Taxpayers (were) paying for both sides of Don Benton’s life, his job and his legislative life,” said Jim Moore, a political science professor and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University in Oregon.
And it was clearly a challenge to be fully present in both roles. Benton missed arguably the most important vote of the legislative session on the heavily negotiated operating budget. Out of 455 votes in the session, he missed 25, the most of anyone in Clark County’s delegation.
Benton did not appear to be at a number of committee hearings in Olympia, which are televised. There is no official attendance record. Benton hung up the phone when called for comment.
State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said she was hoping the 2016 Legislature would tackle making it harder for lawmakers to raise taxes in the most recent legislative session.
“I was so disappointed we didn’t have more time to work the two-thirds majority,” Rivers told The Columbian earlier. “But Sen. (Pam) Roach was down a man in her committee. … That man was Don Benton.”
Benton isn’t the only lawmaker who has to juggle a job outside of the Legislature. State Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, who is in medical sales and also holds a leadership position in the House, lost a work contract when lawmakers didn’t adjourn on time and went into a special session. Harris is a champion of a part-time legislature but admits it can be difficult to define to employers the amount of time he’ll need to be in Olympia.
State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, immediately scaled back his work schedule as a chemical dependency counselor to part time not long after he was elected.
Acting County Manager Mark McCauley said the county’s policy will now be the same for any future county employee who is in the Legislature: the employee must be at work during the county’s regular business hours to get paid for county work. Previously, Benton telecommuted.
Sam Kim, who works as Clark County’s chief information officer and who is running for the 17th Legislative District seat in the statehouse, said he is planning to take a leave of absence or vacation from the county if he’s elected.
“I will not double dip,” Kim said. “If I’m being paid by the state, I won’t be paid by the county, and if I’m paid by the county, I won’t be paid by the state.”
Although Benton said he isn’t seeking re-election, that was before he was ousted from the county. There’s still time for him to change his mind, candidate filing week kicks off today.