In Our View: ‘Transparency’ Just a Whisper

Legislators routinely set aside principles of open government

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Listening to some legislators wax rhapsodically about transparency in government is a lot like listening to octo-husband Mickey Rooney extol the sanctity of marriage. The virtue of their message gets lost in the reality of their behavior.This year marks the return of two annual rituals in the Legislature: the majority party’s blatant refusal to promote public involvement in government, and Jason Mercier’s dogged crusade to expose the hypocrisy of it all.

Mercier is take a deep breath director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center and a board member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. If that sounds like wonky gobbledygook, just call him a gutty watchdog. And here’s what Mercier noticed a couple of weeks ago while on the prowl in Olympia:

“Consider the introduction (recently) of the House Democrats’ 233-page budget proposal,” he wrote in a Sunday op-ed for The Seattle Times. “This complex budget plan was first made public at 9:15 Tuesday morning (Feb. 21) , yet the House Ways and Means Committee held a public hearing on it just hours later at 3:30 p.m.” Mercier also pointed out that the hearing was “first publicly announced the previous Saturday night, days before the bill was available to the public. It simply isn’t practical for most people to even learn of, let alone attend, a public hearing and offer thoughtful comment on such short notice.”

More than a year ago, The Columbian and other newspapers called upon legislators to approve a recommendation by Attorney General Rob McKenna (a Republican) and state Auditor Brian Sonntag (a Democrat) to pass an amendment to the state constitution that would (1) require 72-hour public notification before any bill could receive a public hearing, (2) prohibit “title-only” bills that contain no text describing what the bill would do and (3) prohibit votes on final passage until the final version of a bill has been publicly available for at least 24 hours.

We are all still waiting for that to happen in the Legislature, and Mercier is still applying his pit bull’s grip on the worst of many offenders. Here’s what he wrote about this year’s shenanigans with just one title-only bill: “Despite only two hours of notice of a hearing on blank bills, many education special interest groups were all too ready to testify on the ‘details’ of this mysterious bill. These details appeared later as amendments, placing the text of the stalled teacher-evaluation bills into the blank title-only bills.”

And here’s the spot-on conclusion that Mercier drew: “Either these lobbyists are clairvoyant, or they were given special access to information that was denied to the public.”

If majority Democrats and their leaders cannot find the courage to follow recommendations from McKenna and Sonntag, they should at least abide by the Senate rules requiring five days’ notice of public hearings, instead of constantly ignoring it. Why do they keep breaking the rule? Senate budget chair Ed Murray, D-Seattle, tried to explain to npr.com: “Would I like a more deliberative process, yes. But I think if we extended the process, that same group would be telling us that we should stop wasting the citizen’s money by going into yet another session. So it’s a fine balance.”

No, sir, it is not a matter of balancing demands. Only one criteria should matter for legislators: Abide by your own rhapsodic but withering vows to promote transparency in state government.

There is no public need so urgent as to allow routine suspension of open-government principles.