Virtual Conversation | 2021 Re-Wire Policy Conference, Dec 15, 2021 Register

Q&A: Rep. Peter Abbarno on his first legislative session

Republican Rep. Peter Abbarno is a freshman legislator serving the 20th Legislative District and the Assistant Ranking Minority Member of the House Capital Budget Committee. He is primarily focused on workforce and infrastructure policy 

In a recent interview with the Washington State Wire, Rep. Abbarno looked back on his time during the past legislative session. From forgetting to mute and unmute in zoom calls to improving his district’s infrastructure, Abbarno gave us a look inside at what it was like to be a first-year legislator in 2021.

Ian Portmann: Overall, how do you feel about the recent legislative session, and your first session as a Washington State legislator?

Rep. Peter Abbarno: “I thought we did some good things in the Capital Budget Committee, which I’m Assistant Ranking [Minority Member] on. I thought we’d made some really good investments. Capital budgets are one of my favorite committees, because a lot of it is grassroots solutions for problems that are identified, and then they are pushed up to our committee and [people] say, ‘Hey, how can you help us solve these?’ I thought we made some really positive movements. 

A lot of the legislation coming out of my other committees like Civil Rights and Judiciary, or Environment and Energy, [was] some pretty difficult legislation that I didn’t agree with. If I were grading my first session, it would have to be on each issue, but most certainly it was difficult. Being virtual was difficult. I thought it was good for folks who wanted to be passive observers, you can access the legislature on almost any device. But if you’re an active participant and really wanted to testify, I thought it was pretty wonky and slow.”

IP: In what ways do you believe your previous roles and volunteer work prepared you for a position in the legislature?

PA: “I think pretty well. I’m a former city council member. I was president of the Centralia College Foundation. I do a lot of volunteer work in my local schools, volunteering and mentorship programs. Getting to know your neighbors, your community, folks from every level of the community, whether it be socioeconomic, whether it be ethnic, whether it be geographic, is really important. 

Once you become a legislator, or any elected official, you represent everybody. It’s important to have an open mind and not just [read] about an issue in the newspaper, but actually getting down, getting your hands dirty, rolling your sleeves up. You know, one example is volunteering in the homeless shelter, passing out, you know, food at markets for low-income individuals. You really start to understand what the needs are in your community and that really prepared me for my role as a legislator to try to make an impact on more of a larger community rather than just in Centralia.”

IP: What were some lessons you learned from this session and what are some things you are proud you accomplished?

PA: “One thing that I learned was making sure my camera was either on or off, and whether or not my mute button was on or off. I think that’s a lesson that took a lot of people a long time to learn. I hope I learned that lesson early. 

What I can say I’m most proud of is that I believe I represented everybody in my community. And I stuck to why I wanted to become a legislator. To represent the family values that I have,   the values in my community, and to look at the problems we had in our community and  solutions [to them]. 

The main one, and I get teased about this a lot because I said it on the House floor, my love language is sewers. One of the big things that I’ve always advocated for was making sure we had infrastructure, whether that be sewer or water or Dig Once type policies. I was able to take that philosophy and really push it into a lot of different areas of the capital budget, whether we’re talking broadband, sewer, or water. I think we did a really good job adopting some of that Dig Once philosophy. We need to go back to the basics and start building from the ground up and look at the foundation we’re actually laying.”

IP: What are some important issues facing your district that may have risen after or during this past legislative session that you are looking to focus on next session?

PA: “Poverty is always going to be an issue. I live in Centralia — the school district has 100% free or reduced lunch [and] there’s a high level of poverty. I think looking at how we can invest in our students, invest in our families, and create more opportunities is always going to be one of those overarching issues I’m going to have. And that is incentivizing growth in a smart way, and trying to give families more money in their pockets so that they can provide for their families. 

The payroll tax is a perfect example. That’s an issue that’s been hounding the legislature for several years, but really didn’t hit a pinnacle until after session where people realize you better opt in or opt out by November, or you’re going to be stuck with another payroll tax. 

Most of the issues that, you know, came after session are kind of magnifications of what happened in session, which is, you know, the police reform bills that were passed by the majority, the tax increases that were passed by the majority. I think it took a while for people after the session ended to say, ‘Oh, this is what really happened?’ I think people are starting to realize a lot of things that were not to their benefit were passed in the legislature as well as Congress during these lockdowns.”

IP: What do you think are some items we could address regarding workforce, both across the state and in your district, and could you inform our readers about your “USA” amendment that would have invested millions from the cap and trade bill into various programs?

PA: “As president of the Centralia College Foundation, I’m a big supporter of education in the classroom. I love apprenticeships, and I love the fact that our community and our state is investing in community college. It really is about mobile classrooms and getting students into the classroom that want to learn things that are non-traditional. Not everybody wants to become a lawyer like me. Some people are much better with their hands and are not necessarily reaching their full potential in a classroom, a traditional setting, and want this.

The USA amendment is a reflection of that value I have. We’ve invested a lot in our students, and we’ve invested a lot in our community colleges. We need to continue to invest in apprenticeships and trade workers and the people who are building our communities. I was really disheartened by the environment and energy bills that were passed out of committee and on the House floor that killed a lot of jobs. I think we need to go back to square one and say there are people in this community who have built our community, and there’s valuable trades that we need to cultivate. And if we want our communities to be successful, you need to invest in education, brick and mortar education, as well as all those alternatives that kind of piqued people’s interest and their passion.”

IP: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers that I have not covered?

PA: “As a first-term legislator, my favorite part of this job is connecting with the community. I love helping solve problems. If somebody wants to become a legislator, it really comes down to talking to your community. That same philosophy needs to be, I think, adopted more in the legislature working across the aisle, working amongst other parties, and the other side of the rotunda to really solve problems. Unfortunately, what we see is that collaboration and communication is a dying art. Unless we as a community say, ‘You need to sit in a room and come up with a solution you all agree with,’ we’re going to have future problems. 

It’s the one thing I loved about the Capital Budget Committee. The Republicans needed the Democrats, the Democrats needed the Republicans. That’s why we came up with a unanimous capital budget bill that really truly invested in our communities in a way we all agreed on. We need more of that.”

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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