Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Rep. Ross Hunter, the chief Democratic budget writer, to lead the state’s Department of Early Learning. The move comes as the state is boosting its commitment to early-childhood programs.

Share story

OLYMPIA — With the state Department of Early Learning growing in both funding and responsibility, Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday appointed one of the Legislature’s heavyweights to be the agency’s next director.

Inslee announced the selection of Rep. Ross Hunter, the chief Democratic budget writer, to lead the department.

“There’s really probably no one in this state who has been more attentive and deeper thinking” about early-childhood learning, Inslee said Monday during a news conference.

“From the first time I’ve talked to him … this guy is totally focused on it,” he said. Inslee held the news conference by phone from South Korea, where he is on a trade mission.

After working in the Legislature, “the job is an incredibly compelling opportunity to walk the walk,” said Hunter, 53, of Medina.

Inslee signed into law this summer the Early Start Act and a new two-year state budget boosted spending at the Department of Early Learning by $137 million.

The Early Start Act makes mandatory the state’s quality-rating system for licensed child-care facilities getting state dollars. And it funds teacher training, coaching and technical assistance to help those facilities improve their ratings.

The priority for the department is to use that spending and implement the new law “in an orderly and efficient way,” said David Postman, communications director for Inslee. “This is a big leap for that department.”

Hunter, who was first elected to the House in 2002, was among 37 people who applied for the position, Postman said. About a dozen of those were interviewed by a search firm, and half a dozen finalists were later interviewed by a section panel.

Hunter, who will start Sept. 8 and make $150,000 per year, said he applied for the position after the Legislature had finished its business in July. He will take the place of Dr. Bette Hyde, who announced in March that she was retiring.

The appointment means House Democrats may need to fill two roles central to budget writing. Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle and chair of the House Finance Committee, has expressed interest in filling the seat now held by state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who is running for Metropolitan King County Council.

The House Appropriations Committee, according to Carlyle, “is one of those places where footnotes matter, and details matter.”

For a chair of that committee, “There’s no question that it’s hard work, it’s technically complex, it takes time and effort and there’s always a learning curve,” said Carlyle. It’s too early to say who should replace Hunter on the committee, he added.

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and chief GOP budget writer, said Democrats will lose “a tough negotiator, a smart guy.”

But having Hunter at the Department of Early Learning will be a boon to that agency, Hill said. Hunter “understands the legislative process, he understands the way agencies need to operate,” he said.

The Metropolitan King County Council will have 60 days from the day Hunter steps down to select a replacement to fill his House seat, said Brian Zylstra, spokesman for the Washington Secretary of State’s Office. The council will select from a list of three candidates offered by local Democratic officials. But if the council can’t decide in that time frame, Inslee has 30 days to appoint someone from the list. Hunter’s replacement will serve out the remainder of his term, which runs through 2016, Zylstra said.

The House committee that recommends committee chairs will meet sometime in the fall to consider Hunter’s replacement on Appropriations, said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. A successor must approved by a vote of the House Democratic caucus, he said.

“They’ll be greatly missed, both of them,” said Sullivan, but, “We’ve got a lot of talent in our caucus.”