Q&A with AS legislative liaison Nora Selander
Nora Selander is the legislative liaison for the Associated Students and the vice president for legislative affairs for the Washington Student Association. She represents the Western student body at the state capitol and works with legislators, state committees and other liaisons from all public four-year universities in Washington.
WF: What do you do as a legislative liaison in Bellingham?
NS: When I’m here in Bellingham, it’s a lot of communicating back to the folks who are still on the ground in Olympia. Electives, representatives, students and the Washington Student Association staff. Reaching out and getting other students on campus involved.
WF: How does your average day at Olympia differ from that here at Western?
NS: It’s much different. I pretty much work nine to five committee hearings. Then a couple weeks where the schedule changes, committee hearings for higher ed would start at 8 a.m. I’d get to the Capitol campus, be looking over whichever bills were just introduced, testifying in committee on bills and coordinating with all the other students.
WF: This seems like an intense role to fill. What made you want to become a legislative liaison?
NS: I’ve been involved in student government since I got to Western. I went to Central Washington [University] my freshman year, and I had gone to a lobby day and met a student from Western. I contacted her when I was transferring and she recommended that I apply to be voter registration staff. It was just a little part time job in the fall. I would stand outside and ask my fellow students if they were registered to vote, or if they’d updated their address. But it made a big impact on me as a person. It made me think about how much that matters, both young people being represented in elections and young people knowing how to register to vote. This matters, students matter and they matter more than they know. With tuition being frozen and then cut–we were the only state to do that. It was the first time we had done it in like forty years, and it was really powerful to see that students lobbying for that made it happen.
WF: How have recent political reforms affected your job?
NS: It’s interesting, because I think everyone is very aware of the federal political climate, but in our state, we are a split legislature. Democrats control the house, republicans control the senate and they’re both very narrow majorities. We’re very much a purple state. We want to say that we’re solidly blue and progressive, and it’s just not the truth. I would say that we are not as polarized as we see on a national level, and that people in Olympia on either side of the aisle work hard to work with each other and make good policy.
Students, it seems, are more aware of what I’m doing in terms of representing them. And there are a few key issues that I think people have had more of a visceral reaction to because of the federal climate, like campus sexual assault or a bill that expanded certain types of financial aid to undocumented students. Those kinds of bills have a stronger twinge to them this year. They feel more urgent to a lot of students.
I think I’ve been more aware of those feelings going into this job. [The political climate has] been a really great way to channel student power and be like, “Hey, maybe you feel powerless at the federal level. Let’s work here in the state.” We are united here as students. We have programs we can work inside of, like the Washington Student Association and lobby days and actually make change. It’s been a channel to say these state politics, local politics; they really matter more for your life. And if you’re upset, you can tune into these channels.
WF: What major successes came from the recent legislative session?
NS: I think that student priorities were heard, in terms of what we want to do with affordability. Our big ask this year was to fully fund the State Need Grant, freeze tuition and include a backfill to our universities; when tuition doesn’t go up as projected and is frozen instead, the state gives that money to universities to make sure they can keep up with operating expenses. I think they know that’s a priority for us.
We’ve worked on a couple other bills, one about student fees. Services & Activities fees that fund the AS, The Western Front, all these programs, are tied to tuition. The rate at which those [fees] can rise is tied to tuition rising or falling, which was not so great in the tuition freeze and cut years. We’ve been trying to permanently decouple that. It’s been decoupled in the last three budgets, just by a proviso that expires. This coming fall, those fees will be tied with tuition again.
Unfortunately, [on Tuesday, April 4], our bill for that died, so it’s going to have to be a budget thing again. But I think people are getting more educated on our issues. It’s tough. I’m down there for one session and really want to make an impact, but legislative work can be so slow sometimes. You have to bring things back for three or four years to really move it.
WF: Officially, as AS Liaison, what is your stance on the [Washington] Senate budget?
NS: Officially, we are opposed to it. It didn’t fund higher education in the way that we wanted. It did not improve service levels at all on the State Need Grant. It did not freeze tuition. And it took nearly $50 million from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a welfare-type program that predominantly serves single mothers. On the day of testimony, a mother came to testify. [She] said that if she hadn’t been approved for TANF, her and her kids would have been sleeping outside. They took $50 million from that, took money from needy families and put it towards needy students. They aren’t serving any more people than they’re currently serving. We see that as deeply problematic.
WF: From here, how can you [the AS] go about making a change?
NS: The [Washington] House budget came out, which was much better. It included a lot more revenue and froze tuition. [It] funded six-thousand more students with the State Need Grant and didn’t make any shifts [to programs] such as TANF. I think that negotiating, making it loud and clear where student priorities are at this point, will be really important.
WF: As a liaison, are there projects or issues you’re most passionate about?
NS: So, a little background on this one: a couple years ago, Senator Barbara Bailey, who used to be the chair of Senate Higher Ed., put together a task force about campus sexual assault. We got their report in December, and hit the ground running in Olympia. None of the administration in the state were pushing legislation on [campus sexual assault], so the students were like, “Okay, we’re gonna do it.”
That’s one of things I’ve been most passionate about. Another is voting access. Western registers more students to vote on campus than any other school in the state. Consistently in the past five years, we’ve blown others [schools’] numbers out of the water.
WF: You mentioned that none of the state schools were pushing campus sexual assault policy. Why do you think that is?
NS: I’m not sure that they’re shying away from it, I just think they weren’t ready to go ahead with anything. They had the report that the task force had worked on, but a couple issues take more flushing out. They need a bigger framework built around them to implement into law. I’m sure they’re going to be helping us push legislation in future years. I think this year, the timing was just a little much.
WF: With you graduating in June, how does the future of the program look?
NS: Good. Each year I’ve been at Western, the applicants for the position have been competitive. I think that really speaks for the integrity of the position. I think students are excited. They see what we’re doing in the state, especially with this federal climate, and they’re more tuned into it.
WF: If people wanted to get involved, what should they do?
NS: They should contact me. If they want to volunteer, that’s great. We have a work-study position in the office every year, we have part-time voter registration staff in the fall and we have five salary positions.