- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2006

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — It seemed like a simple idea for a class project on state government: pushing a bill to name the Walla Walla sweet onion Washington’s official state vegetable.

But three years after the effort began, teacher Toni Miller and her ninth-grade students may have seen their plan shrivel for the last time because of opposition from the potato industry.

“The most innocuous, simple idea can always run into trouble from places you wouldn’t expect,” said Washington state Sen. Bill Finkbeiner, a Republican who tried to shepherd the legislation past a key deadline last week.

Miss Miller’s plan to have her honors social studies students lobby the Legislature for the bill started with a letter-writing campaign that got little response.

The next year, the Kirkland Junior High class contacted legislators elsewhere in the state — in Walla Walla, to be exact, home of the fragrant, sweet bulb they were attempting to honor.

The class made more headway, but the bill still didn’t pass.

Miss Miller assigned each student a few lawmakers to contact this year, and they started a full-tilt lobbying campaign that looked as if it could blossom.

They received a hearing and a vote in the House, with the support of lawmakers from Walla Walla and Kirkland, which Mr. Finkbeiner represents. The sweet onion bill sailed through the House on a 95-1 vote.

A rougher road lay ahead in the Senate, where the Agriculture Committee had stalled Mr. Finkbeiner’s companion measure.

Resistance came from the state’s spud growers, who weren’t happy with an official endorsement of another crop.

Another Senate committee changed the bill to designate Walla Walla the state’s “edible bulb,” while naming the russet potato the “official tuber.”

The students were taken aback by the resistance.

“At first, I was like, ‘Nobody will oppose it,’” said Katey Callegari, 15, who made three trips to Olympia to testify for and monitor the bill. “But then, there were all these potato people.”

Newspaper editorials criticized the Washington Potato Commission over the legislation’s compromised status.

“I think it just kind of hurt our growers’ feelings when the bill first surfaced,” commission Director Chris Voigt said. “It’s funny how we just got portrayed as these big monsters, beating up on these ninth-graders, and that wasn’t the case at all.”

One of the bill’s major critics was state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, a Democrat who said there was no time for folly as the Legislature raced to a conclusion.

“It’s going to be real hard to look people in the eye and say, ‘Your bill didn’t make it, but we had time to do the onion bill,’” she said.

By Friday, it was clear the bill had no life left.

For Miss Miller, who plans to retire this summer after 30 years in the classroom, it is the end of the campaign. She still thinks the effort was worthwhile.

“It’s just going to help the kids understand that what happened to our bill happens to most bills,” she said.

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