Even with a shift in power in the Washington state Senate, Sen. Ann Rivers is “cautiously optimistic” about how the now-started legislative session for 2018 will go.
Rivers, R-La Center, sat down with The Reflector Jan. 3 in an hour-long interview covering that power shift, differences between legislative chambers, her distracted driving bill that passed last year, as well as some of what makes the job both hard and rewarding.
The shift in senatorial control came as a result of the passing of Andy Hill, a Republican senator for the 45th Legislative District, in November 2016. That led to a special election on Nov. 7 of 2017 where Manka Dhingra, a Democrat, won Hill’s old seat.
Rivers was aware of a possible shift with the passing of Hill, she said, and resolved to focus on her relationships, working with anyone regardless of party to get things done. Those relationships were helped out by the different dynamic the Senate has over the House, where the two-year turnover in the lower chamber inhibits the sort of relationship-building that has become integral to Rivers’ time in the Senate.
As an example of those types of relationships, Rivers mentioned her counterpart to the south, Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver. During Rivers’ time as chair of the Senate Health Care Committee last year she managed to make an impression on the fellow lawmaker — Rivers remarked how following the special election Cleveland had contacted Rivers, saying that she wished to be the same kind of chair Rivers was in 2017.
For 2018 their roles are essentially switched, with Rivers as a ranking member of the committee — what Cleveland was when the other lawmaker was chairing the committee last year.
Rivers is hopeful that the gains the majority caucus had in its five years of control will not be washed away by the sea change in the Senate. One of those policies, having a four-year balanced budget outlook as opposed to only visiting it every other year for the official vote of approval, Rivers addressed.
“That’s I believe part of what has created so much stability in our state,” Rivers said.
Rivers touched on how oftentimes the most contentious issues can distract from the numerous unanimous or near-unanimous votes that happen during sessions.
“We agree on so much more than what we disagree on,” Rivers said, “but, the stuff that we disagree on is the stuff that bleeds.”
She also remarked how in some cases it isn’t party lines stopping the show, it’s the divisions between chambers causing an issue. An example was a bill Rivers sponsored looking at state park maintenance which sailed through the Senate but was “completely ignored” by the House.
Prior to her seat on the Senate, Rivers herself was a House Representative. Regarding different dynamics she said the Senate is more deliberative, having a full roll call for every single vote, she said. That has led to some scrambling on the Senate floor as lawmakers consult with others on why they made their vote during the roll call.
The deliberation isn’t only on the floor, as Rivers talked about sleepless nights agonizing over upcoming votes. She said she has made a point to answer constituent emails regardless of the time, reasoning that if an issue is pressing enough for someone to ask for her input in the odd hours of the night, it’s something troubling them greatly and needs her to address it.
“One of my mentors who was a former legislator once said that you will be amazed how you carry the people of this district in your heart in the decisions that you make,” Rivers said. “If you don’t ever feel that pain, she said then you need to stop being a legislator because now you are just making decisions based on what you want instead of what your constituency needs.”
Rivers said she keeps a log of “every single constituent” — their name, location, when they reached out to her, what she and her team needed to do to solve their issues. It makes for an interesting situation when a constituent supposedly calls her out on not responding, though often it’s a misunderstanding — “I get confused for Annette Cleveland all the time” she quipped.
The case work side of the Legislature is the aspect Rivers prefers most about being a lawmaker in Olympia. As to what was her favorite part about the job, it was “when you solve a problem for someone that they say could never be solved,” she said. She gave an example of an impoverished homeowner widow in Ridgefield on Social Security who after nearby development had their basement flooded, leaving it with black mold.
“While she owned her home outright, she couldn’t afford to make the tax payment,” Rivers remarked.
When a local attorney took up the case for all the landowners, the settlement was only for matching funds, with the homeowner constituent getting “almost nothing” compared to the full settlement as she was unable to put up more than $300.
Rivers was able to get the constituent a settlement that they could actually use, while also assuring that other developers wouldn’t try to get in on the money. Case work like that, solving the apparent impossible, made the work worth it.
“For me, that was like such an amazing, amazing thing,” Rivers remarked. “It’s really about helping my constituency with their government.”
Distracted driving bill
One of Sen. Ann Rivers’ most notable achievements last year was the passage of a bill allowing stricter enforcement for distracted driving. Going into effect in July, initially the provision to not implement the new law until Jan. 1 was vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee. Following public backlash (and a healthy dose of misinformation in the public, according to Rivers) the state did not begin fully enforcing the law until Jan. 1, which is what the ironically canned provision would have done in the first place.
Rivers said she had recently sat down with the state’s Traffic Safety Commission to go over the law’s effect. Statistics from Washington State Patrol Troopers showed a 27 percent drop in distracted driving in the three weeks after the bill came out.
“But then they noticed it started to creep up again, and in December it was back up to prior to … before the bill passed,” Rivers said.
She was spurred into sponsoring the bill by family after family coming to her office regarding a near miss or an actual death resulting from distracted driving. Testimony from law enforcement also reinforced her decision to run the bill, with egregious cases of completely unaware drivers swerving wildly on the interstate and in one case hitting a pedestrian before driving four blocks and coming to a stop.
“Make no mistake about it, this is a cultural shift,” Rivers said, remarking that she anticipated similar statistics to when the state passed its seat belt law.
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