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Originally published Tuesday, March 29, 2011 at 3:48 PM

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Guest columnist

Legislature keeps public out by flouting own transparency rules

Though the Washington Legislature has rules designed to assure transparency about its business to the public, guest columnist Jason Mercier shows that lawmakers often ignore the rules. He urges the Legislature to put the public back in the public debate.

Special to The Times

AGAINST the backdrop of recent protests and lawsuits in Wisconsin over possible public-disclosure violations in passing a union-reform law, our politicians reassure us that Washington is not Wisconsin. They are right.

In Wisconsin the public has a right to know what the Legislature is doing. In Washington, however, our lawmakers have exempted themselves from the state's Open Public Meetings Act, which applies to every other government entity in our state.

Despite this giant transparency loophole, Washington's legislature has adopted rules that would appear to provide the public an opportunity to participate in the legislative debate. In fact, according to one legislative committee's procedures, the purpose of a public hearing "is to respectfully hear from the public."

This common-sense statement reflects a fundamental premise of our democracy: The governed are to be provided the opportunity to comment on the laws we live by and to help ensure those elected to represent us are informed about our opinions and expectations.

To facilitate public involvement in the legislative process, the Legislature's rules require: "At least five days notice shall be given of all public hearings held by any committee other than the rules committee. Such notice shall contain the date, time and place of such hearing together with the title and number of each bill, or identification of the subject matter, to be considered at such hearing."

Unfortunately, this transparency protection for the public is routinely brushed aside by some lawmakers.

During the 2010 session, some lawmakers waived legislative rules requiring five-day notice before holding a bill hearing; provided inadequate notice of the time, location and topic of public hearings; held hearings on bills with no text; and voted on bills the same day details were made publicly available. The rush to vote on the budget and tax bills without allowing meaningful public comment or adequate review time by lawmakers led to mistakes in the bills.

Things have not been much better this year. Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, walked out of a hearing in protest after the committee chairman, Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, brought up substitute bills and held a public hearing without adequate notice for either the public or lawmakers.

Also, last week Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, introduced 22 title-only bills, including several with the title "Relating to creating the revenue and taxation act of 2011" that could be setting the stage for a proposed tax increase. All 22 of these bills, introduced on the same day, are essentially blank, with only the title as text.

These practices are why Attorney General Rob McKenna and state Auditor Brian Sonntag sent a letter to lawmakers in January requesting transparency reforms to put the public back in the legislative debate and prohibit title-only bills.

Among the changes they recommend: Require 72-hour public notification before any bill receives a public hearing; prohibit title-only bills (no public hearing or vote should occur on a "ghost bill"); and no votes on final passage until the final version of the bill to be approved has been publicly available for at least 24 hours.

Answering the call of the attorney general and state auditor, several senators introduced Senate Bill 5419 to provide minimum public notice before public hearings or votes on budget and tax bills occur. To enhance these transparency protections Washington Policy Center called for the following changes:

• Extend the transparency protections to all bills and not just budget or tax/fee bills.

• Increase the notice for public hearings from 24 to 72 hours.

• Extend the time between committee passage of a bill and floor action from 24 to 48 hours.

• Prohibit title-only bills.

Despite no formal opposition and the support of the attorney general and state auditor, SB 5419 was not moved to the floor for the Senate to consider.

Based on this inaction, one can only assume Democratic leaders in the Senate believe the routine waiving of rules for public hearings and adding bills for public debate on the same day they are introduced is what passes for an open and transparent legislative process. We already know what they think about the use of title-only bills.

When I asked last week, the National Conference of State Legislatures told me most states "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."

What about those legislative open-government abusers in Wisconsin? Title-only bills are not allowed there. We should be so lucky in Washington.

It is time for our lawmakers to put the public back in the public debate.

Jason Mercier is director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center and serves on the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. For more information visit www.washingtonpolicy.org

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