Regardless of how one feels about the budget passed by this year’s Legislature, all Washington taxpayers should be appalled by the process. Lawmakers continue to embrace an opaque process that chips at the foundations of open government.
The 2021 session concluded Sunday after lawmakers approved a $59 billion operating budget for 2021-23. The plan includes additional taxes and spending on items such as wildfire prevention, a tax credit for working families and support for the state Teachers Retirement System.
That capped a 105-day session that featured significant legislation relating to pandemic relief and police reform, as well as the constitutionally mandated creation of a budget.
But to get there, legislators too often employed the egregious practice of title-only bills.
Those bills are proposals with names such as “concerning transportation spending” but no details about what the legislation would do or how it would be funded. The strategy is an end-around to avoid legislative deadlines regarding the progress of a bill during the session; lawmakers approve an empty bill to meet the deadline while leaving the public in the dark.
Essentially, legislators are telling the public “we have to pass the bill so you can see what’s in it.” That is no way to run a state or any lawmaking body.
In recent years, the ploy has been used by Democrats, who have controlled both chambers of the Legislature. But neither party is above such subterfuge.
This year, in the case of HB 1564, a bill “concerning transportation spending” was introduced on March 28. No details were provided, but a public hearing was scheduled for April 1 — four days later.
Effective, responsive government requires that members of the public remain informed and have time to process information, particularly regarding the spending of taxpayer money. In the end, HB 1564 failed to advance out of committee while the Legislature passed other transportation-related bills; but the concern here involves the process rather than the result.
Typically, that process has bills being filled in during the final days of the session, leaving the public uninformed and preventing robust debate. As Toby Nixon, former president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, has said of previous title-only bills: “I think it’s a clear violation of the intent and the spirit of the state constitution, which clearly says that bills introduced in the last 10 days of the session require a two-thirds vote. And it did not have a two-thirds vote.”
Early during the 2021 session, Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, introduced Senate Bill 5283 with the title, “Prohibiting the use of title-only bills.” Unlike some proposed legislation, details were in the text of the bill, including, “The introduction of empty pieces of legislation as placeholders, with substantive content to be filled in later, does not promote legislative transparency or foster public trust.”
That bill, like a similar bill in the House, did not advance out of committee. In ignoring the legislation, lawmakers thumbed their noses at voters and eschewed an opportunity to foster that public trust.
That fit with a pattern for lawmakers, who in recent years have tried to bend the state’s Public Records Act for their benefit and have made a habit of filing title-only bills.
The people of Washington deserve better. They deserve a Legislature that is willing to outlaw title-only bills or leadership in Olympia that refuses to consider bills that undermine transparency.