Stumbling through Olympia

On February 15, I participated in the ASUW’s annual Lobby Day event. I was team leader for the group (of two) representing the 42nd district, and fearlessly led my teammate through meetings with two representatives (Representatives Vincent Buys and Jason Overstreet) and leaving literature for one state senator (Senator Doug Ericksen). I was excited to get to speak with the people representing my old home town (Bellingham), but the whole experience was also rather odd, and not something I’m in a hurry to repeat.

Because we were taking part in a pre-organized event, we were bound to discuss certain bills that the ASUW saw as important for higher education. These included, but were not limited to, the following:

  • HB 1043 – bars differential tuition for undergraduate students
  • HB 1267 – extends voter registration up to election day
  • SB 5738 – generates a new funding source for higher education through an excise tax on capital gains
  • SB 5420/HB 1624 – ties resident undergraduate tuition increases to the rate of inflation, and freezes same tuition if the state provides a certain additional amount of revenue
  • SB 5713/HB 1669 – provides safeguards for students in fee-based programs, including requiring 6 months notice before a program shifts to fee-based
  • SB 5730/HB 1873 – dedicates funding from the Washington State Lottery unclaimed prize fund to child care for parents in school

Quite a lot to cover, and generally dedicated to undergraduates. Since we had so to discuss, it wasn’t really feasible to talk much about language changes. While this was a disappointment, my sole teammate was a fellow graduate student, so we were able to emphasize the bills targeted to graduate students, and also place a special emphasis of the needs of graduate students in general. This is important, as there is often a lingering perception that graduate and professional programs aren’t really necessary, and thus don’t warrant special funding or attention, rather than acknowledging the fact that they have become the standard in many fields.

The response we received was………interesting. Our first meeting, with Representative Buys, was about 10 minutes, as scheduled, in his office. He listened politely to our talk, but our conversation got hung up on HB 1267 (extending voter registration). He didn’t think this measure was necessary, and that there was plenty of time to register already. I responded acknowledging that this was true, but also asked what the harm was in increasing opportunity to register to vote. He offered a somewhat convoluted explanation that included 18 year olds getting distracted by instagram instead of thinking about civic duty, and that this bill would allow such attitudes to persist. I politely but firmly disagreed. The bill has since passed, but without Representative Buys’ vote. It was an interesting conversation, and we did get to talk about graduate students’ challenges a bit, but it definitely got derailed. Lesson one: conversations with politicians get derailed suddenly and deeply.

Next, we dropped off a flyer outlining the ASUW’s position on the bills to Senator Erickson. We were confused as to whether to knock on the door to his office or not, but got around it and delivered the flyer without incident. His assistant was nice, and, as a nice bonus, his office was located off a hallway with pictures of all of the old legislators – so much outrageous facial hair and gorgeous old hand lettering.

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Next, our meeting with Representative Jason Overstreet. We went to his office as scheduled, but his assistant informed us that he was in committee. She told us to “pass a note”, which is apparently not something you get detention for, but the process of passing a sticky note to the security guard outside the room who then passes it to the person you’re trying to talk to. Representative Overstreet did not immediately come out to see us, but we had a great conversation with the security guards. One of the guards noticed Representative Overstreet as he exited, and called him over. We then had a short, impromptu meeting in the hallway. At this point in the day, we were really tired and somewhat flustered, but things went well considering the circumstances. (There were all kinds of circumstances related to the general organization and operation of the event that contributed to this, but that’s another conversation entirely) We had a good talk about fee-based programs, and were able to emphasize how they hurt graduate students. Though this bill only concerns undergrads – we did leave him with the idea of how fee based programs can “change the rules of the game halfway through”, which seemed to appeal to him. He still voted against the bill though – apparently we’re not very good with Republicans.

I’m glad to be able to say that I participated in the public process in this way, but it was very strange. Everything seemed based so heavily on partisan soundbites, condensed to be said as quickly as possible, that it made me feel even more cynical about our political process. It reminded me of the talks in class about system thinking – I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to solve the horrible problems we have related to entrenched partisanship without fundamentally changing the way our government works. I also think of our conversations about the way people are compensated – politicians are rewarded for voting the party line, so they do so. These are clearly smart people with minds of their own, but they all end up sounding the same. I don’t know how effective a fistful of flyers will ever be in the face of that mess.

At any rate, here are some pictures my colleague Katy tagged at the event – she was tremendously excited about the bust of George Washington, while there was a dramatic poster for the state troopers that caught my eye:

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