Opinion

Olympia 101: How it works

GUEST COLUMN

When Bremerton Patriot editor Charles Melton offered me the opportunity to write a trio of columns for the newspaper this spring and summer, I reasoned that one of them should contain a review of the 2008 legislative session. That column was published in early April.

It also seemed logical that one would feature my best predictions about what the 2009 session might hold for us. I’m thinking about that one now and I believe it will run in late July.

But in thinking about what to focus on between those two columns, the topic that popped into my mind immediately was one that might be even more helpful than the others. Now that some sort of civics class is no longer required for high-school graduation, it seems that fewer and fewer people are really familiar with how our form of self-government really works.

Many are well-versed in the ways of Olympia, of course. But the fact is, most of us are busy with work, family, friends, community activities, hobbies and dozens of other things that occupy our time and attention. We vote, and try to stay informed on important issues, but let’s face it: For most people, the intricacies of state government are not a top priority.

Those intricacies are also too much to unravel completely in a brief newspaper column, but I want to touch on a few things, all of which are related to the above quote by Thomas Jefferson. (I think we can all agree he knew a thing or two about democracy.)

Information really is the currency of democracy, which makes it the currency of Olympia, as well. The more that taxpayers, citizens, voters, know about the Legislature and the legislative process, the better off they are. And the more information that lawmakers have about what their constituents want, the better off we all are.

What’s the best way to let your elected representatives know what you want? Tell us! Call us up (my office number is (360) 786-7934), send us an e-mail (appleton.sherry@leg.wa.gov) or write us a letter (P.O. Box 40600, Olympia WA 98504-0600). There’s also a toll-free Legislative Hot Line you can use (800-562-6000) and a toll-free TTY-TDD line for hearing-impaired constituents (800-635-9993). You can also come to the Capitol to testify about legislation being considered by a House or Senate committee.

Now, just how are you supposed to know what legislation might be up for consideration? In addition to reading papers like The Patriot, I suggest that the Internet might be your most useful tool.

Washington state’s award-winning legislative website (http://www.leg.wa.gov/legislature) is a great resource for anyone interested in the legislative process. From that one portal, a curious web surfer can access every bill filed in Washington from 1991 right up to today. You can look at every line of every state budget. You can brush up on your basics by studying a handy little document called “How a Bill Becomes a Law.”

You can learn when committees plan to meet and what issues/bills they’ll be dealing with. You can subscribe to a free service, in fact, that will help you track various issues and bills by sending you e-mails whenever action is scheduled. You can even have this kind of information sent to your PDA or cell phone, if you like.

The purpose of all this information? If we use it wisely, we end up with a better state. Smarter laws. Healthier people, a stronger economy, and a brighter future. No matter what our party affiliation, I think most of us agree these are worthy goals.

And one final benefit of having well-informed, involved citizens — and lawmakers — is that our democracy will continue to thrive. That could be the best reason to stay informed, because as Winston Churchill so famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo) has represented the 23rd Legislative district (Kitsap County, including Bainbridge Island, Silverdale, Poulsbo, Kingston, and parts of Bremerton) in the Washington State House of Representatives since 2005.

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