Western students took an opportunity to be heard by their state legislators during Viking Lobby Day, an annual event funded by the AS that took place Jan. 19 at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia.
“Viking Lobby Day is an opportunity for students who want to be introduced to the state legislative process to get involved, speak to their representatives and advocate the … priorities, values and policy directives that directly affect students' rights and access to higher education,” AS Vice President for Legislative and Governmental Affairs Sarah Ishmael said.
Ishmael organized the event for Western students by scheduling meetings with state legislators. At these meetings, groups of students communicated the concerns of the AS directly with their elected representatives.
Morgan Holmgren, a student hired by the AS to represent them at the Washington Student Lobby (WSL) during the legislative session, keeps abreast of legislation that may affect students and keeps the WSL informed of the student climate at Western. The WSL is a lobbying organization that represents the voices of student associations from several state colleges and universities in Olympia. Holmgren's reports are used by the student-populated Legislative Affairs Council (LAC) to advise the AS Board of Directors in setting their annual state legislative agenda.
In addition to speaking with legislators, students also had the opportunity to discuss their concerns with representatives of the Higher Education Coordinating Board (which administers state financial aid), the Council of Presidents (which represents the presidents of state colleges and universities) and the non-partisan counsels for the Senate and House Higher Education & Workforce Development Committees.
“We make an impact each year by meeting with legislators and reminding them that there are faces to the name of Western,” junior Nikki Brown said.
This is the second year that Brown has participated in Viking Lobby Day.
“It can be a little intimidating at first, but by talking to [the legislators] you realize that they are very down-to-earth and that they genuinely care about what you have to say,” Brown said.
This year, Holmgren brought a message to the LAC that huge state deficits threaten laws that cap the amount that tuition can be raised each year and make need-based financial aid available to Washington's college students.
The LAC responded by drafting an agenda that advocates keeping those laws in place.
Under current state law, tuition hikes cannot exceed 7 percent in any given year, and the authority to do so for in-state undergraduates rests solely with the state legislature. The Legislative Affairs Council fears those laws could be overturned during the current legislative session to address their budget woes, potentially leading to much higher increases in tuition and giving individual universities' boards of trustees the authority to decide how and when such increases take place.
The AS “affirms that the best form of financial aid is low tuition” and “support[s] a tuition policy that is stable and predictable,” according to this year's AS State Legislative Agenda.
“A stable and low tuition policy is vital in several different areas,” Ishmael said. “The number one barrier to education is the price. While it is very important to make sure that students obtain financial aid, it is more effective to control the cost of education in the first place.”
Washington Governor Christine Gregoire's proposed budget for the next two years cuts eligibility for the State Need Grant. To qualify for a State Need Grant presently, one's family income must not exceed 70 percent of Washington's median family income. Gregoire's proposed budget reduces eligibility to those whose family income does not exceed 65 percent of the median and only partially funds grants to students whose family income does not exceed 50 percent.
By contrast, the AS State Legislative Agenda advocates “legislation and funding to raise eligibility for the State Need Grant to 100% of the median family income for Washington State.”
“Many students at Western receive the State Need Grant and it's important to the AS to fight for their financial ability to attend the university,” Ishmael said.
Faced with an economic climate that may affect the ability of many students to stay in school, students who attended Viking Lobby Day gave priority to tuition and financial aid issues. Small groups of students had about 15 minutes with each of the legislators they visited to drive their messages home.
Western senior Thom Anderson felt the response between legislators was mixed.
“When talking with Representatives Bob Hasegawa and Dave Quall,” Anderson said,“I felt like my words were being heard and that the legislators were seriously considering the proposals that my lobbying group was trying to gain support for. On the other hand, when meeting with Senator Steve Hobbs and Representative Skip Priest, it felt like they had already had their minds decided before we entered the room.”
Participants in Viking Lobby Day will not know how effective their lobbying was until April or May, when the state legislature is expected to pass its biennial budget.
“I'd like to think our state legislators already recognize the contribution that higher education can provide for society,” said Anderson. “If viewed as an investment, higher education can pay back doubly. But my main concern, as well as others in the Viking Lobby group, is that the legislators will remove the tuition cap and increase the eligibility standards for the State Need Grants. …I hope, if anything, our legislators recognize the economic obstacles that many low-income students face and work hard to keep higher education accessible to everyone.”
“That is why it is also very important to call, write, or e-mail legislators,” Brown said, “to remind them that there are people who are very much affected by every decision they make.”
Disclosure: The author participated in the adoption of the AS State Legislative Agenda as a member of the LAC and participated in Viking Lobby Day as a representative of the AS.
Your state legislators love hearing your opinions. More importantly, they respond to them. If you have an opinion that you would like them to hear, call them or write to them! You can find their contact information at: www.leg.was.gov/legislature.