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A day in the life in Olympia

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By Dennis Box-The Courier-Herald

Meetings, hallway conversations, notes slipped onto desks, endless phone calls and floor votes are the daily rules of the road for state legislators in Olympia.

A day in the life of a legislator may appear to be a mind-numbing flurry of activity to an outsider, but it's the lifeblood of the 31st District politicos who have been spending their time in session at the state Capitol since Jan. 8

The 31st is represented in the House by Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, and Chris Hurst, D-Greenwater and, in the Senate, by Pam Roach, R-Auburn.

A typical workday for legislators begins around 8 a.m. or earlier and may last 12 to 15 hours or more depending on the action on the floor of the Senate or House.

Dan Roach is in his fourth two-year term and he has yet to enjoy the favors of being in the majority party. The best was his first term, which was a tie. This year the number of Republicans in the House are down to 36, compared with 62 on the Democratic side of the aisle.

“I've learned over the years to adapt to whatever the situation is,” Dan Roach said. “You would think it would be harder (this year), but in many respects this is the best year I ever had. All but one of my bills at least got a hearing.”

One of the first bills signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire was Dan Roach's “Washington Rest in Peace Act,” which outlawed protests within 500 feet of funerals.

Dan Roach said experience and knowing the ropes of the Capitol hallways are essential tricks of the trade.

Chris Hurst, a Democrat, who returned to the House after a four-year hiatus, said, “The day-in, day-out legislative process runs by rules and is the same. Many of the issues don't change much, but the four years away have given me a chance to reflect on the process and reflect how I've done it before. I think I've come back with more refined priorities. I'd like to think I'm a little wiser with age.”

March 28 started as a typical day at Hurst's office with a lobbyist cornering his legislative assistant, Dru Swaim, before 8 a.m. The woman was complaining about the representative's lack of support for her bill while Hurst was making his way to his third-floor office in the John L. O'Brien Building, encountering plenty of interruptions along the way.

Hurst has taken up mountain climbing in recent years, which is a good choice for a retired police officer turned legislator. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last year and has climbed Mount Rainier. The focus necessary for climbing a mountain looks like child's play compared to the demands of the legislative session.

“There is nuance to everything around here,” Hurst said.

Sen. Roach began the day taking constituent phone calls, then shuffled through stacks of paperwork while her legislative aide, Josh Giuntoli, rescheduled appointments and hearings on the fly as the day's schedule changed by the minute.

Multitasking is more than simple jargon in this place - it's a job requirement.

Pam Roach was scheduled to be on the Senate floor and then at a Republican caucus meeting, while the afternoon was packed with testimony before the Appropriations Committee in the O'Brien Building on her victim notification bill. That was followed by a rush across the campus to the Ways and Means Committee in the John A. Cherberg Building to hear testimony.

Between meetings, floor action and consultations, Pam Roach counted the votes needed to pass one of her bills, figuring how many Ds will be necessary.

“At this stage, we are trying to get bills out and we know exactly where the bills are and who the opposition is,” Pam Roach said.

She is beginning her 17th year and fourth term as senator of the 31st District. As one of the senior members in Olympia, Pam Roach has become adept at when and where to push while working with both houses of the Legislature.

“In the Senate things are slowed down a little,” she said. “There is a saying around here that the House has twice the members and the Senate has twice the trust. In general, once that trust is earned it is kept.”

Both Dan Roach and Hurst said despite coming from different parties, they spend considerable time working together on district issues.

“There are less politics during the session sometimes than people would think,” Dan Roach said.

Hurst said Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, has emphasized the importance of “separating campaigning from legislating.”

While the 31st District lawmakers share a common goal of passing bills and representing constituents, the rules of politics are still in play, particularly on party line issues like the budget.

Hurst described the House budget as a “great budget for education and I'm happy to have voted yes on the operating budget. I think it is fiscally responsible.”

Dan Roach contends the Republicans were cut out of the negotiations on the operating budget.

“The reason I voted no is I'm a fiscal conservative and I cannot support an 18 percent increase in spending,” Dan Roach said. “It is unsustainable. In two years we will be $1.3 billion in the hole. We can fund all this stuff, but we won't be able to afford it in two years, so we take it back or raise taxes.”

Moving bills through committees, caucuses and onto the floor for a vote is a labyrinth that takes time and considerable energy to learn.

Dan Roach said the House alone would introduce more than 3,000 bills, with only a fraction making it to the governor's desk.

A bill that is introduced will make its way through at least one committee. After being considered, if it makes it out of committee, it will go before the party caucuses to be considered before making it to the floor for a vote.

“Each of us serves on three committees,” Dan Roach said. “No one person can read every bill, so we rely on the committee members to report back at the caucus.”

Each party has its own caucus in each chamber.

Before Dan Roach's caucus meeting, he attended a strategy session in the office of Rep. Richard Debolt, a Chehalis Republican. Following that, he went into the caucus meeting, then headed to the floor for the session.

“It's really a lot of fun,” Dan Roach said. “There are issues I'm passionate about and that's what keeps me running.”

One of the measures Dan Roach has been working on this session is both a passionate and personal issue in his life.

The Roach family includes their 4-year-old son, Andrew, who has been diagnosed with autism. The representative has introduced three bills to provide services and help public schools with autistic students. He said the bills were heard in committee, but will not pass this year, although some money for services will be added to the budget.

“This is gaining strength,” Dan Roach said. “Providing services (for autistic children) creates a huge impact on schools. The schools are mandated to provide services and it's a big problem. They are doing studies, but no one really knows why this happens.”

Working the byways of the Legislature is a struggle for most new lawmakers, but the freshman moniker is in some ways a help to Hurst.

“It is an odd advantage,” Hurst said. “I already have four years of experience and I'm also a freshman.”

He used his leverage when he tracked down Lt. Gov. Brad Owen and asked him to pull his bills out of the powerful Senate Rules Committee. The bills allow the Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board to keep certain violent criminals and sex offenders locked up and add two more members to the board.

“No one ever goes to the lieutenant governor for pulls,” Hurst said. “He presides over everything (in the Senate) like the speaker does in the House.”

According to Hurst, Owen agreed to pull the bills after a brief conference, which gives the measures a shot at seeing the light of a vote.

The deadline has passed for most bills to be read in the committees and the hard-nut negotiations and arm twisting begins in earnest over the final days of the session, which is scheduled to end April 22.

Pam Roach is well versed in the Capitol's sleight of hand when it comes to moving legislation and the veteran senator warned, “The walls have ears around here.”

The weaving of words and wishes, the building of coalitions and caucuses, is part of the intricate and bewildering world of America's politicians.

At the desk of each legislator are red and green buttons used to cast votes. Hurst said after all the talk, meetings and arm-twisting, there are still only two ways to vote.

“There's no maybe button,” Hurst said.

Dennis Box can be reached at dbox@courierherald.com.

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