Would you believe that the Legislature on many occasions this year actually was in too big a hurry? That might seem hard to believe, what with the lawmakers needing a long, drawn-out special session to finish their business. But according to a recent news release from the Washington Policy Center, the Democrat-controlled Legislature on numerous occasions this year rushed through decisions that — perhaps intentionally — worked against the principles of a fully informed and participating public.
The WPC’s Jason Mercier provides three examples of government expedience that was based on secrecy and exclusion:
Legislative rules requiring five-day notice before holding a hearing on a bill were routinely canceled. Meeting times, room numbers and subjects of public hearings often did not receive adequate advance notice.
Meetings were held on bills that had no text. In other words, hearings were held on “ghost bills,” measures that provided no details other than titles. Mercier explains: “This means that, outside of those government agency lobbyists that somehow knew about the bill before it officially existed, the public was not provided the opportunity to comment.”
Legislators more than once voted on bills the same day details were made public.
How egregious were all these tactics? Jim Camden of the Spokane Spokesman-Review recently described what happened on the last day of this year’s special session, as the final tax package became reality: “After spending much of the previous 28 days in backroom discussions about what mix of tax hikes was acceptable to a bare minimum in the House and Senate, Democratic tax leaders rather imperiously released a take it or leave it plan in a ‘conference’ committee and insisted there was really no need to hold public hearings because everything had been discussed in one form or another at some point or another. No real reason to wait a full day before voting; not like anyone really needs to read it, let alone study it line by line.”
This kind of closed-door government in Olympia must stop, and Mercier has some good ideas about how to stop it:
“Require 72-hour public notification before any bill could receive a public hearing.” How could any legislator, regardless of party, oppose such a common-sense rule?
“Prohibit title-only bills. No public hearing or vote should occur on a ‘ghost bill.’ ” Such a shenanigan, deliberating on an undefined topic, is reprehensible in the public arena.
“Prohibit votes on final passage until the final version of the bill to be approved has been publicly available for at least 24 hours.” What are bill sponsors afraid of that would make them railroad a bill to approval? Possible rejection by the public?
What we’re talking about here is transparency and, with a few exceptions that are too rare to even describe in much detail, transparency in government is an attribute, not a liability.
We would like to see legislators routinely observe Mercier’s three practical recommendations. He, though, believes the best way to make sure lawmakers behave is through additions to the state constitution. That might be the best approach, but until then, here is our challenge: Which legislator(s) will step forward to lead this crusade toward transparency? Might it be a bipartisan coalition of open-government advocates? Might he or she or they be from Southwest Washington?
All of that is to be determined, hopefully in next year’s legislative session. But already we know that defending the public’s right to know all necessary details about the Legislature can be one of the most powerful resumé enhancements any politician could pursue.