In Our View: 2013: Openness in Olympia

Legislators must regain public confidence by emphasizing transparency

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When Washington's Legislature convenes Jan. 14, attention will be focused on the state Senate's unique majority coalition caucus, created when two Democrats agreed to support Republican leaders, who in turn appointed committee chairs equally from the two parties. In the House, where Democrats will remain in control, most news stories will focus on yet another budget deficit and how smoothly state representatives can work with the strange new power scheme in the Senate.Already, abundant analyses have explored what exciting decisions may or may not transpire this year in Olympia. Unfortunately, far too little attention has been focused on the public's right to know. For the sake of voters who hired them and constituents for whom they work, wise legislators will correct this attention deficit and make sure transparency becomes a hallmark of this year's session.

But we've got our doubts. Our pessimism is rooted in two factors: What they've said so far. (Preliminary pronouncements by legislative leaders have included virtually no mention of open-government principles.) And what they've done in the past. (The 2012 session was sullied by repeated violations of transparency rules.)

On that first matter, a Dec. 10 statement from the new majority coalition caucus listed five guiding principles: job growth, sustainable budget, world-class education, governing collaboratively and setting priorities. Sadly, there was no specific mention of keeping the work of the Legislature highly visible to regular citizens. That's too bad. Washingtonians should hope for adjustments in the legislators' thinking.

On that second matter, two glaring examples of improper procedural behavior -- one in each chamber -- linger from the 2012 session. These were addressed in an Washington Policy Center op-ed written for the Feb. 26 Seattle Times.

In the House, the Democrats' 223-page budget proposal was first made public at 9:15 on a Tuesday morning, then the House Ways and Means Committee rushed to a public hearing just six hours later. And all of this happened less than three days after the bill was first publicly announced. Five days' notice is required for all public hearings of the Legislature, yet as Jason Mercier wrote in that op-ed, "the casual way they routinely waive these rules shows they are often more responsive to lobbyists" than to constituents.

In the Senate, a bill to change teacher evaluations originally was blocked by the Senate Education Committee Chair Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, even though a majority of committee members supported the measure. Then, Senate leaders gave less than two hours' notice for a public hearing on two title-only bills (these are bills with no explanatory text.) Mercier wrote that "many education special-interest groups were all to ready to testify on the 'details' of this mysterious bill," which appeared later as amendments. "Either these lobbyists are clairvoyant, or they were given special access to information that was denied to the public."

Last year, The Columbian supported three WPC recommendations: Require 72 hours' public notice before public hearings on bills. Prohibit title-only bills. And hold no votes on bills until they're available to the public for 24 hours. This year, we repeat that support. If legislators are as excited about serving the public as they appear to be about their groundbreaking collaborative potential, they will quickly enact and enforce all three rules.