In Olympia, paying for a bill is a bit iffy

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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It's a statistic bandied about by lawmakers in Olympia, but one that experts say is nearly impossible to pin down: How much does it cost to draft a bill?

According to state Reps. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, or Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, or countless other legislators, the average cost is about $4,000 or $5,000. Administrators on Capitol Hill, however, say that figure is unsubstantiated.

"These are both figures that we've heard repeatedly for the past several years," said Bernard Dean, House deputy chief clerk. "Any estimate will be fraught with a multitude of complications, and require setting numerous arbitrary assumptions."

Estimating the cost of a bill is a request Dean and other administrators in Olympia get asked from time to time, probably because state legislators continue to use the statistic.

When Moeller criticized Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, for introducing a light rail bill that Moeller said had little chance of passing, Moeller wrote on The Columbian's website: "This was an unnecessary expenditure of 5,000 taxpayer dollars to develop the legislation."

Harris, meanwhile, has said that the reason he doesn't introduce much legislation is because doing so costs taxpayer money, to the tune of $4,000.

It does cost taxpayer dollars to draft a bill, but calculating an accurate, average cost of bill drafting would be dizzying, administrators say.

In many cases, the groundwork to develop a bill crosses many desks. Legislative staff, code revisers, different state agencies, and even the governor's office might be involved.

Estimates vary greatly

Over at the state's nonpartisan Office of the Code Reviser, administrators say they would have to separate the hours their employees spend working on bills from the time they spend on other duties. The origin of the $5,000 or $4,000 price tag for drafting a bill is a mystery to them.

"I've heard figures like that," said Code Reviser Kyle Thiessen. "I really don't know where they came from."

Thiessen's office makes sure the bills lawmakers introduce would mesh with state law. The office has a staff of 41, including code revisers, lawyers and proofreaders, and it's also responsible for publishing bills, the Washington Administrative Code, and other government information.

In the last two-year legislative cycle, 2011-2013, legislators introduced 3,477 new bills (as opposed to ones that had been introduced in a previous session). The Office of the Code Reviser's budget during that time totaled $8 million, and its staff spends roughly half of its time drafting bills, Thiessen estimated.

A crude average for that office's expense during that two-year period, then, would be $1,150 per bill. And that's just one group that plays a role in drafting bills.

"Do you include some portion of Legislative Service Center, since they support the technological infrastructure necessary to support bill drafting?" Dean asked in an email. "What about the Office of Program Research staffers who may have drafted the bill before it went to the (code reviser)? What if caucus staff were involved in that effort? What about the cost to print the bill?"

But wait. There's more.

"Some have argued that determining the 'full' cost of introducing a bill could simply involve taking the entire budget of the Legislature and dividing it by the number of bills introduced in a year -- since the Legislature's primary purpose is to propose and enact laws," he said.

During the 2011-13 biennium, the cost of running the Legislature topped $146.5 million. Divide that by 3,477 bills introduced, and you get an average cost of more than $42,000 per bill.

But, Dean said, "the Legislature does more than simply propose and enact legislation." There's interacting with the public, overseeing the state's programs and agencies, conducting audit reviews, and publishing laws and other legislative documents, he added.

The Legislature's budget also remains the same whether lawmakers introduce 6,000 bills or just six, Dean pointed out.

The complexity and length of a bill also come into play. Some bills are simple one-pagers, while others, like the one that creates the state's operating budget, are mammoth in comparison and much more expensive.

Therefore, "our official answer has always been that the cost of introducing a bill is indeterminate," Dean said.

Origins unclear

The $5,000 figure Moeller has used dates back to when he was a freshman legislator 10 years ago. The House Democratic majority leader at the time gave him that information during a lecture about not introducing too many bills.

Since then, the number has been "taken as gospel," Moeller said. He added that the information provided by Dean, the House chief deputy clerk, has given him pause about using it.

Harris said he believed the $4,000 figure he uses is based on a calculation made less than a year ago by someone within the House Republican caucus, though he wasn't positive exactly how that calculation was made.

The figure really depends on "how far they delved into the weeds," Harris said. The point is, Harris added, that lawmakers should keep in mind that drafting bills costs money.

Thiessen, the code reviser, said he doesn't plan on keeping tabs on employee hours to help determine the cost of drafting a bill. He also wonders if knowing the cost would inhibit state lawmakers from bringing forth their policy ideas.

"This is a very open marketplace for ideas," Thiessen said of the Legislature.

Bills introduced

Among the legislators from Clark County, Benton has introduced the most bills so far this session at 39. Moeller comes in second with 17 bills.

Harris had introduced one bill. Meanwhile, Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, hadn't introduced any legislation as of press time, and Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, introduced one.

Harris predicted that the new power structure in the Legislature this year will result in fewer bills' being drafted. Republicans essentially have control of the Senate while Democrats have a comfortable majority in the House. That means legislators will have to try to propose bills that could pass through both a conservative chamber and a liberal chamber.

"This really is a different paradigm," Harris said. "They're starting to think before they write."

At press time, more than 750 bills had been introduced in the 2013 Washington Legislature.


Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.