OLYMPIA — Being a state senator in the minority party can be a tiring job, introducing the same bills year after year, without much progress.
But this year, with Republicans running the state Senate with the help of two Democrats, legislators like Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, are enjoying a long-awaited chance to have their voices and bills heard.
Benton is taking full advantage, introducing 59 pieces of legislation this session — more than any other lawmaker in either the House or Senate.
“I’ve introduced many of these bills in the past, and they are just killed,” Benton said. “You don’t even have the chance to have a public hearing on them, so the citizens who brought them to my attention never had a chance to come up and tell their story.”
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Benton said he doesn’t expect all his bills to be winners. But he’s willing to put together some dead-end legislation if it means allowing constituents to voice their concerns.
On that front, he’s been largely successful. Of his 59 bills, 42 have received committee hearings — about 71 percent. Only about 36 percent of Benton’s bills had hearings when he was in the minority last biennium.
His bills cover a wide array of topics. One bill, Senate Bill 5143, would allow motorcyclists 18 and older to ride without helmets. Senate Bill 5015would expand the definition of aggravated first-degree murder to include the killing of a child 14 or younger as an aggravating circumstance. Benton has introduced this bill a few times without success, but this year, it passed out of the Senate 39-9.
He also introduced a bill requiring parental notification when girls under 18 seek an abortion. The bill got a hearing didn’t make it out of committee.
“While parental notification is critically important to me, I won’t allow that one issue to keep us from achieving our goal as a coalition, which is to stop a runaway liberal agenda on all fronts,” Benton said. “We need to spend our time on issues like jobs, education and the budget.”
Benton, 55, says he was introduced to politics as an 8-year-old, when his father ran for the school board in Agua Dulce, a small town in Southern California. His dad won and lobbied for a new elementary school to be built in their town, as the closest school was about an hour away.
“He was elected to the board when I was in the second grade, and by the time I was in the fourth grade I was going to the new school that was built in our community,” Benton said. “That must have left an impression on me that one person can make a difference in the community.”
Benton spent years serving on various student councils, then on the board of trustees for College of the Canyons, a community college in Santa Clarita, Calif.
He moved to Vancouver in 1988 and founded the Benton Group, a marketing firm for which he still serves as CEO.
Thinking there weren’t enough business-minded people in the Legislature, he ran for the House as a Republican in 1994. He won.
The House “was really a top-down organization,” Benton said. “You didn’t have a lot of autonomy, you just kind of did what leadership wanted you to do. And it was really detracting from my business and from my family.”
So, after serving two years in the House, he ran for the state Senate. He’s been there ever since, but nearly lost his seat in last year’s race against Democratic challenger Tim Probst. He won by only 74 votes — his smallest margin ever.
Colleague and friend Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, attributed Benton’s narrow win to his dedication to conservative principles.
“He’s a conservative, and being so, he’s got a lot of people after him,” Roach said. “That’s what happens to conservatives in the Legislature in a liberal state. But he invigorates the base, the conservative Republicans.”
Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said Benton’s years in the minority have taught him how to compromise. Although they disagree on most social issues, the two have worked together on a number of tax bills in recent years.
In 2011, the two also collaborated on a bill to help provide housing for the homeless. The bill would have taken advantage of the high availability of rental housing by providing rental vouchers to homeless people. It died in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
“We’re pretty much as far apart as the Grand Canyon when it comes to social issues,” Hobbs said. “He is a proud conservative, but he’s willing to work with Democrats on things that are important to him.”
Benton certainly won’t be working with Democrats on Roach’s proposed constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote in the state Legislature to increase taxes. Many Democrats have opposed the idea of a supermajority requirement to raise taxes since the 1990s. Benton has been a strong supporter.
Voters have approved several initiatives over the years requiring a supermajority for tax increases, but the state Supreme Court last month ruled the mandate unconstitutional.
“The citizens want the two-thirds majority (to increase taxes) because they want legislators to look at other options besides raising taxes,” Benton said.
The proposed constitutional amendment was passed by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 28, and would need a two-thirds vote in the Senate and House and simple-majority voter approval to be enacted.
But with a strong Democratic majority in the House, it’s unlikely the amendment will leave the Capitol.
“Will the Legislators who represent the citizens (who voted for the initiative) actually represent them when it comes time to put this measure on the ballot? We’ll just have to see about that,” Benton said.
Amelia Dickson: 360-236-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @ameliadickson