Just as a fully illuminated government becomes even more imperative — during the frantic response to an economic crisis — the agents of darkness are at work in our state Legislature … to virtually no one’s surprise. Multiple manifestations of the dreaded “title-only” bill have bubbled up again this year. This gimmick — also known as a “ghost bill” — is a bill written with no text, only a vague title such as “fiscal matters” or “state government” or “criminal justice.” Details become known later, much later — too late, in fact, as the bill accelerates down its greased skids.
We choose to confer upon state Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, the title “Sultan of Secrecy” as the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee has introduced 22 title-only bills. His excuses, according to an Associated Press story, are that title-only bills provide flexibility while helping lawmakers avoid missing deadlines. That’s code for “We can’t get our work done on time, so we’re resorting to haste in privacy.” Murray also gave this explanation, which might reveal more than he intended: “Every year, evidently, as they did this morning, staff brings a series of bills that are potentially needed to enact the budget, so that we can get out of here.” Ah, there we have it, the operative phrase. These folks just want to make sure they get to leave the job site as soon as the horn blows.
Resistance to such chicanery should be bipartisan. That is precisely what happened earlier this year when Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna and Democratic State Auditor Brian Sonntag urged the Legislature to approve an amendment to the state constitution that would enhance legislative transparency. One of the major planks in that measure would be a ban on title-only bills. Alas, that plea has been ignored by majority Democrats despite extensive research provided by the Washington Policy Center.
This week, Jason Mercier of the WPC contacted Bruce Feustel of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Mercier quotes Feustel: “Most states I am familiar with do not allow title-only bills for legislative consideration, generally under the reasoning that you need to know the details of a bill to make an informed decision about how to vote on it and even where to refer it.”
Still, Murray remains steadfast in his defense of the clandestine fast track. “You start preparing vehicles that can accomplish whatever you’re going to need in the end,” he said. Feustel’s comment seems to dismiss the logic in Murray’s explanation.
Both parties have been guilty of this abuse. In fact, Murray asked Mercier why the WPC didn’t complain when Republicans deployed title-only bills in 2003, 1997 and 1991. Mercier wrote: “That may be because WPC’s Center for Government Reform that reviews open government policies was not created until 2007. Democrats have controlled both bodies of the Legislature since then.”
Ultimately, though, assigning blame is a futile exercise. The greater need is to stop the trickery. McKenna and Sonntag wrote in their letter to legislators: “While the use of title-only bills is a rare procedure, the public concern substantially justifies eliminating their use entirely.” Well-stated, gentlemen. McKenna, specifically, wrote: “Now, more than ever, the people of Washington demand access and accountability from their government … .” Sonntag added: “Government has a responsibility — and citizens expect it — to be open, accessible and transparent. That’s how I define accountability.”
The people want more than vague titles and mystery. They want details. Sadly, it takes a majority party with the courage to abolish its own unfair advantage. And Washingtonians have been given no reason to expect that kind of statesmanship.