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Central Washington senator emerges as champion of business

Sen. Janea Holmquist Newbry Credit: John Stang

It's been a good legislative session so far for Janéa Holmquist Newbry.

The Republican senator from Moses Lake and two colleagues — Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, and Rep. Mike Manweller, R-Ellensburg — held a press conference on March 14 to celebrate 22 Senate business-oriented bills being passed and sent to the Democrat-controlled House. The three are the Republicans’ business issue leaders for their chambers.

They were flanked by representatives of almost all of the business lobbying groups in Olympia.

A sign propped up next to them said that Washington's businesses pay the ninth highest share of taxes among the 50 states —providing, 56.8 percent of state and local revenues versus a national average of 47.9 percent. These and other statistics on the sign came from the Association of Washington Business, the Washington Research Council, the Washington Roundtable and the Washington Association Realtors — all business groups.

Holmquist Newbry has introduced 22 bills so far this session, mostly complicated business and labor legislation. Four ended up on March 14's list of celebrated bills. Her top successes were three workers' compensation reform bills. Her biggest setback was an attempt to create a training wage — below minimum wage — for teen employees.

Most of the 22 Senate-passed business bills went through the Labor and Commerce Committee, which Holmquist Newbry chaired. Her ascent to a chair position occurred when two Democrats joined 23 Republicans last December to create the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus controlling the Senate. That is the first time she has been part of a majority, where a lawmaker has greater opportunity to make a mark.

Holmquist Newbry, now 38, was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2002 as the youngest member of that chamber, following a three-year stint as a legislative aide. She switched to the Senate in 2006. She has run either unopposed or won by a huge margin in each of her races in east-central Washington. Her day job is described as "insurance consultant" on Web sites, although Holmquist Newbry views being a full-time legislator as her real job. She is young enough to sometimes say "awesome" when complimenting a person testifying before her committee.

Her voting record is among the most conservative in the Senate. The Association of Washington Business, the Washington Farm Bureau and the National Federation of Business consistently rank her voting record very high — all three naming her their "legislator of the year" at some time or another. Environmental and labor organizations consistently rank her very low.

"I don't believe she's carrying anyone's water," said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, a frequent opponent of Holmquist Newbry on business and labor issues.  "I think she's sincere."

Kris Tefft, lobbyist for the AWB, believes she is motivated by attracting jobs to her agricultural district, which is also sprinkled with high-tech sites such as a Boeing test airfield in Moses Lake and a Microsoft data center in Quincy. The district stretches across Kittitas, Grant and Lincoln counties and a small part of Yakima County.

She is deeply into business and labor issues — one of the most cutthroat and volatile subjects in the Legislature with deep-pocketed interests pounding each other across a wide front.

Holmquist Newbry declined to be interviewed for this story, citing her busy schedule with all her spare time taken up with caring for her first-born 4-month old son Makaio, which is Hawaiian for Mark. Holmquist Newbry and her husband, Matt, love vacationing in Hawaii.

As new chairwoman of the Senate's Labor and Commerce Committee, she introduced or shepherded a host of pro-business bills through her committee to Senate floor, where her party dominates.  "She is not a shrinking violet," Tefft said.

About business groups' success this year under the Majority Coalition Caucus, Adam Glickman, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union Local No. 775, said, "The business community pulls a lot of weight in Olympia, and are not shy about pressing their advantage."  Sen. Keiser said, "None of this was accidental. It was planned." 

Holmquist Newbry's workers compensation reform bills are complex, and opposed by labor interests saying they are tilted too much in the employers' favor. The biggest proposed change is expanding one-time settlements from older workers to younger injured employees. The one-time settlements are cheaper to companies in the long run than monthly payments.  

She also tried to create a "training wage” of 75 percent of the state's minimum wage, which would have been $6.91 per hour compared to the current $9.19 per hour, for the first 680 hours that an employee works. That wage would be limited to 10 percent of an employer's workers.

Complaints were muttered that she rammed anti-labor bills through her committee very fast.

One example was moving a bill to terminate the Family Medical Leave Act from the beginning to the end of a committee meeting agenda without warning at the last minute. That had the effect of allowing lots of time to vote on five of her own workers compensation bills, already guaranteed to pass with a Republican majority on the committee. Her critics contended she wanted to squeeze out testimony time on the Family Medical Leave Act's proposed elimination. Labor groups wanted to testify against the measure in depth. The measure is in limbo but could still come to a vote on the Senate floor.

Others say she was just finally giving an overdue day in the sun to some Republican proposals, stalled over years by the previous Democratic Senate majority. Business lobbyist Tefft said, "I think what Sen. Holmquist Newbry is being accused of in the Senate is basically what we're experiencing on the House side. We're experiencing in the (Democrat-controlled) House the frustration that we can't have a debate."

At the time, Holmquist Newbry said these were bills that Republicans have been trying to get through the Senate for years — and their time had come. 

Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, is the former Labor and Commerce Committee chairman and is now the committee's ranking Democrat. He criticized the speed that five complicated workers compensation bills went through the committee in the session's first two weeks, saying insufficient study and debate occurred.

"We're not here just to pass bills, but to evaluate proposals to see if they should pass," Conway said. "I've been around here long enough to know they wanted to get these bills out quickly." He contended the Washington Department of Labor and Industries was not given adequate time to testify. "That's what happens when you rush bills too fast. You don't get all the objective information. … There's nothing in the testimony that these bills will create a single job."

Holmquist Newbry's position was that the workers compensation bills had been proposed over and over for years, and legislators were already familiar with the details.

Keiser said Boeing heavily lobbied for the push on workers compensation bills.

Meanwhile, Holmquist Newbry got her own committee to approve her bill to create a "training wage” of 75 percent of the state's minimum wage, which would be $6.91 per hour compared to the current $9.19 per hour. It would apply to the first 680 hours that an employee works; the training wage would be limited to 10 percent of employers' workers. Holmquist Newbry told the media that the training wages were intended solely for teens in hopes that the lower wages would encourage employers to hire them.

Conway was suspicious of the bill. "They want training wages not only for youth, but for adults," he said. "It's really an attack on the state's minimum wage standard."

The training wage bill never made it to the Senate floor by a recent policy bill deadline, with Holmquist Newbry trying to narrow its focus explicitly to teens and trying to rewrite it so it could get 25 votes from the majority coalition.

Keiser said Holmquist Newbry was observant and thoughtful during her years in the minority, piecing together what she would want to do when she ended up in the majority. Keiser believes Holmquist Newbry deliberately loaded up the number of bills pushed through in the first two weeks, splitting up the Democrats' attention in dealing with them. "That was good legislative strategy. I can't complain about it," Keiser said.

As the session unfolded, Holmquist Newbry began to schedule more testimony time in her committee for bills that she opposed, such as a Democratic effort to expand the Family Medical Leave Act. But those bills did not come up for votes at all or were voted down by the committee's Republican majority. As chairwoman, Holmquist Newbry controls which bills are voted upon.

"It's form over function," Keiser said of the upswing in testimony time for Democratic bills.

At the March press conference, Holmquist Newbry was asked whether the string of Republican business bills were anti-labor. She said no: “All I ask is for people to set aside their bias and read the bills. These are common-sense best practices."

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.

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