Wash. Legislature: As Pace Picks Up, Complaints About Lack Of Transparency

Feb 29, 2012

OLYMPIA, Wash. – An insider’s game. That’s how open government advocates describe the Washington legislature as it heads into its final days. They complain of last minute public hearings, so-called “ghost bills” with only a title and no details, and quick votes on deals negotiated behind-the-scenes. These shortcuts save time. But critics say they effectively shut the public out of the process.

Every year it’s the same. The legislative session bumps along and then, suddenly, shifts into high gear. Here’s just one example. With just 10 days left in the session, Senate Democrats unveiled their proposal to re-balance the state budget. It happened at a 10:30 am news conference.

Ed Murray: “We’ll give you a fairly high overview, try to answer questions.”

The budget is 235-pages long. Senate budget chair Ed Murray took testimony on it that same afternoon.

Ed Murray: “We will now move into public hearing on Senate Bill 5967 ...”

The public had less than 24-hours notice of the hearing and only 7 hours to digest the contents of the budget. Critics say it’s just not enough time. But Murray says this is the reality when a part-time citizen legislature meets for just 60 days.

Ed Murray: “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.”

The Washington Senate’s own rules require five days notice of public hearings. But at this time of year that requirement – known as Rule 45 - is routinely dispensed with.

Montage: “Mr. Chairman I move that the committee suspend Rule 45 ...”

This is the kind of thing that drives Jason Mercier crazy. He’s head of government reform at the Washington Policy Center, a right-of-center think tank. Mercier says it doesn’t matter which party is in power, at this point in session you basically have to be a full-time lobbyist to influence the end game.

Jason Mercier: “Unless you are in the know helping the lawmakers move that process through you don’t have any fighting chance to be able to take time off from work, come down here and offer thoughtful testimony.”

So where does this leave legislative outsiders?

Colin Hastings: “It is hard to keep up.”

Colin Hastings heads the Pasco Chamber of Commerce - some 260 miles from Olympia.

Colin Hastings: “It takes anywhere from four to five hours to travel there.”

Hastings says a House committee recently took up a capital gains tax proposal his chamber strongly opposes. But there was only 24-hours notice before the public hearing.

Hastings: “And that’s just all we’re asking for is just some sort of lead time cause
there might be some of my members that can take some time out to go down there and testify on a bill.”

It was a lack of lead time last year that prompted Republican State Senator Jim Honeyford to walk out of one committee meeting in protest. Then later, in another committee meeting, Honeyford confronted Chairman Ed Murray over a decision to take testimony a day early on a controversial energy bill. Here’s part of that exchange. You hear Murray first.

Ed Murray: “And I’m pulling a bill forward off of tomorrow’s scheduled on today because we have time.”

Jim Honeyford: “I believe we have the problem of allowing people in Lewis County that are be impacted by this bill adequate notice for them to be here.”

Ultimately, Murray agreed to take testimony both days. For his part, Murray says he hopes someday soon legislative committees will be able to pipe in citizen testimony from around the state.

Ed Murray: “Barring changing the number of days that we’re in Olympia, which I’m not recommending, technology is probably the way we get around this. Because people have become more interested.”

Each year, open government advocates offer up ideas to shine more light into the legislative process: like requiring 72-hours notice before public hearings. But lawmakers, perhaps not surprisingly, have been reluctant to handcuff themselves.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

On the web: http://www.washingtonpolicy.org/research/open-government/new