Washington Legislature 101

Below are frequently asked questions about the Washington State Legislature.

How does your government work?

The Washington State Legislature has two chambers—a Senate with 49 members and a House of Representatives with 98 members.

Who represents me?

You live in a legislative district and are represented in the Legislature by one state senator and two state representatives. Senators are elected to four-year terms and representatives are elected to two-year terms. Find your legislative district on the Washington State Legislature website.

How are legislative districts created?

Districts are divided by an equal population. Now that the 2010 census is complete, districts have been redrawn to reflect the latest population shifts. There are 49 legislative districts. For more information on redistricting, visit the Secretary of State’s website.

When does the Legislature meet?

The Legislature meets annually on the second Monday in January. In odd-numbered years, such as 2015, the Legislature meets for 105 days to write a two-year state budget and pass laws. In even-numbered years, they meet for 60 days to make adjustments to the two-year budget and pass laws.

How does the Washington state budget get finalized?

Washington state operates on a two-year budget. In December of even-numbered years, the governor releases a proposed budget. When the Legislature convenes in January, they begin work on formulating their own budget plans. After the Senate and House pass their respective plans, leaders in each chamber come together to negotiate and come up with one budget that can pass the full Legislature. The final budget is then submitted to the governor, who may veto some or all of the budget. Once the governor signs the budget, it takes effect on July 1 of each odd-numbered year.

Who is the Speaker of the House?

The Speaker of the House is the top leadership position in the state house. The Speaker of the House shapes the agenda and determines what legislation will pass the floor of the House and be sent to the Senate.

In the House, Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) was re-elected as Speaker of the House. He has served as the speaker since January 1999. However, he shared the gavel with a Republican co-speaker from 1999–2002 when there was a tie in the number of seats held by Democrats and Republicans in the House.

Who is the majority leader?

In the Senate, the majority leader is the top leadership position similar to Speaker of the House. As of December 1, 2014, Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) is Senate Majority Leader. In the House, the majority leader is the second highest leadership post under the Speaker. Pat Sullivan (D-Covington) is House Majority Leader. The majority leader makes sure that members’ votes are in line with the party. The minority party is led by the minority leader.

What does the Ways and Means Committee do?

The Senate Ways and Means Committee writes the state operating budget, which determines how state revenue is spent on the public’s priorities such as education, health care and public safety. This committee also determines if a bill will move forward based upon the monetary amount attached to it and its impact on the budget as a whole.

How many seats do Democrats and Republicans hold?

Currently the Democratic Caucus controls the House of Representatives (50–47) and the Majority Coalition Caucus (made up of 25 Republicans and 1 independent Democrat) controls the Senate (26–23).

How do I find my legislators?

In the Legislature, you are represented by one state senator and two state representatives. Visit the Washington State Legislature website and type in your voting address to find out who represents you in Olympia.

How do I get a bill passed?

Have an idea for a new law? Talk to one of your state legislators to get them to sponsor a bill. They and their staff will work with you and the Code Reviser’s Office, who are non-partisan attorneys, to take your idea and draft the legislation. Once you have a bill, it must go through the legislative process before it becomes law.

How do I track a bill?

Visit the bill information website and type in the four-digit bill number (e.g., HB 1000). A history of the bill will be displayed including when it received a public hearing and how members of the House and/or Senate voted on it. At the bottom of the page, you can read the Bill Reports for a simple summary of the bill and what it would do.

The League of Education Voters also maintains a bill tracker during the legislative session of education-related bills.

What is a caucus?

A caucus is a group of House or Senate members of a political party. In the Legislature, there are four caucuses: Senate Democratic Caucus, Senate Republican Caucus, House Democratic Caucus, and House Republican Caucus.

Between votes on the floor, legislators will hold caucus meetings with their colleagues from the same political party. For example, a democratic state representative will caucus with the House Democrats. During this meeting, members will discuss the merits of a bill and how they should vote on legislation. Should a member of the Legislature choose, they may caucus with a political party other than their own.

Although the public is not allowed to observe caucus meetings, it is possible to send a note to your legislator in support or opposition of a bill. You may give campus security, who are stationed by the doors to the House and Senate floors, the note to your legislator.

What’s a whip?

A whip is one of several leadership positions in the Democratic and Republican caucus who assist the majority or minority leader in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The whip has several important duties such as counting votes, checking attendance, and maintaining caucus discipline on partisan issues and procedural questions.

What’s a companion bill?

If the same bill is proposed in both the House and Senate, it’s known as a companion bill. Having two versions of the same bill working through the legislative process increases the chance that it will become law. However, it also makes the process more complex since supporters/opponents of the bill need to follow the changes to each bill closely and decide which one is the best to send to the governor’s desk.

How do I get to the state capitol and where can I park?

Visit the state’s website for directions to the state capitol in Olympia from Interstate 5.

For parking, we recommend using one of the nine visitor parking lots on the capitol campus. View the capitol campus map for the parking lot locations and fees.

The House has two K–12 committees: K–12 and Appropriations. Why is that?

In 2006, state Democrats built up large majorities in the Legislature. To provide more leadership roles for legislators, several new committees were created. As a result, the House Education Appropriations Committee was created as a sub-committee to the Appropriations Committee.

The Senate, on the other hand, has Early Learning and K12 combined, while the House has Early Learning and Social Services combined.

The party in control in each chamber decides how to arrange legislative committees. Since there are more members in the House (98) compare to the Senate (49), there is more flexibility in arranging committee structures in the House. It would be difficult to schedule and fill three separate education committees in the Senate.

What happens during the opening week of the Legislature?

Opening day is largely ceremonial, but legislators do meet in caucus. New members get sworn in, and some work will take place in committee work sessions later in the afternoon. For many freshman legislators, opening day is more than just being sworn in and settling into their offices. Many have family come from around the country to be supportive and be part of the ceremony.

The first week covers a lot of basics and logistics. Committee chairs tell members how the committee is run and go through proper procedures. There will be a number of committee meetings, and there might be some floor sessions on bills.

On Tuesday, the Governor will give his State of the State address. The House will hear testimony on the governor’s proposed supplemental budget, and the Senate may as well.

What is a floor session?

A floor session is where all members of a chamber (House or Senate) vote on bills. This is when a bill is either introduced and referred to a committee, or when a committee has passed a bill and the bill has returned to the chamber for final passage.

Do my legislators pay attention to my emails and letters?

If you send a postcard or email to your legislators, make sure that you include your address. They take more notice if they know you are a constituent of their district. Remember, you want them to remember you. While they can’t read all of the emails they receive, they will begin to learn your name.

Lastly, if you send an email asking for something and you get it, make sure to send a thank-you email. You are building a relationship with your legislators with a goal that they will “want” to talk to you.

What is a “striker” in a bill?

A striker is an amendment to a bill that is offered when a legislator wants to make substantial changes to legislation. Often, a striker begins with “strike everything after the enacting clause and insert the following.”

How many bills are introduced on average during a session?

In even-numbered years, 1,479 bills have been proposed on average since 1984. In odd-numbered years, the average is 2,442. The Legislature meets for 105 days in odd-numbered years, giving legislators more time to introduce legislation.

What are the procedures for giving testimony?

Before you arrive at the public hearing, you should prepare your remarks. It’s best to prepare your notes in outline form since reading from prepared text is frowned upon. In your notes, include what legislation you are supporting or opposing and the top reasons why. Practice your remarks using your outlined notes and make sure not to exceed three minutes.

At the public hearing, sign up to testify on the clipboards by the door and indicate whether you are pro or con. If you wrote out your remarks, you can give copies of your testimony to the committee clerk. When testifying, speak into the microphone slowly and clearly. Begin by stating your name and group or organization you represent.

Visit the Legislature’s website for more information on giving public testimony.

What are work sessions?

No public testimony is given during work sessions. Instead, legislators call upon experts to talk about a specific topic, such as K–12 funding. Legislators use this time to ask questions and learn more about legislative issues.

What is a “null and void” clause?

A “null and void” clause means the legislation will not be enacted if it does not receive funding.

What is a fiscal note?

A fiscal note is a cost or savings estimate of the bill’s impact on the Washington state budget.

What is a substitute bill?

A substitute bill is a new bill that replaces the original one.