State Auditor Brian Sonntag, a Democrat, and Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna have thrown their support behind a constitutional amendment that would force the Legislature to do the people's work in an open and transparent manner.
We suspect that the voices of good government advocates such as Sonntag and McKenna will be drowned out by forces within the Legislature that favor the status quo and the ability of the majority party to push through legislation. Their attitude is an affront to citizens of this state who have every right to expect openness in the legislative process.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and her Democratic colleagues trampled all over the public’s right to know last year and it led directly to calls for a constitutional amendment forcing openness. Brown presided over one abuse of the legislative system after another:
• Legislative rules requiring five days’ notice before a public hearing can be held, were routinely cancelled.
• There was inadequate notice of the time, room number and subject matter of public hearings.
• Lawmakers voted on bills the same day details of the legislation was made available to the public.
• The most blatant violations were the occasions when lawmakers held public hearings on bills with no actual texts. Unbelievably, majority party lawmakers voted for ghost or title-only bills without any knowledge of what those bills would eventually say.
While the Senate was out of control, there were abuses in the House as well. And while Democrats are to blame, now, unfortunately these are long standing practices of Democrats and Republicans.
The magnitude of the budget challenges in front of lawmakers did not warrant the tactics to deny public input last year. Their tactics are a clear violation of the public’s trust. In an attempt to hold lawmakers accountable, the Washington Policy Center, a conservative think tank with offices in Olympia and Seattle, shined the spotlight on the tactics and called for a constitutional amendment to block similar affronts to openness and transparency in the future.
The policy center’s proposed constitutional amendment:
• Requires 72-hour public notification before any bill could receive a public hearing.
All bills would have to be on the House and Senate floor a full 72 hours before a vote could be taken. And no bill can be passed without at least one public hearing.
• Prohibits title-only bills.
• Prohibits votes on final passage until the final version of the bill to be approved has been publicly available for at least 24 hours.
Those are reasonable proposals that would put the public back in the public policy-setting process.
In their joint letter to lawmakers in support of the constitutional amendment, Auditor Sonntag and Attorney General McKenna, said, “In the spirit of open and accountable government, we support a proposed constitutional amendment to create greater legislative transparency. The ... proposal, recommended by the Washington Policy Center, would prohibit blank bills from being introduced or voted on by the Legislature. While the use of ‘title only bills’ is a rare procedure, the public concern substantially justifies eliminating their use entirely. The proposal would also require a minimum time for public notice of bills before a legislative hearing or action on the bill. These basic reforms will build the public trust and ensure that government is open and accountable to the public. Please give your support to this proposed constitutional amendment.”
While well intentioned — and clearly the right thing to do — we fear that Sonntag and McKenna’s letter will have little sway with lawmakers.
It serves the purpose of the majority to be able to bend the rules and trample the rights of the minority party — and the public — when it suits the majority. To them, the end justifies the means.
But it’s wrong and they know it.
Regrettably, we don’t expect Democrats to rush the constitutional amendment to a vote of the people. Democrats would see that as ceding power and let’s face it, power is the elixir of the majority party.
What Democrats did in the 2010 legislative session — in both the House and Senate — is no way to conduct the people’s business. It’s a violation of the public’s trust. As the proposed constitutional amendment notes: Transparency and public disclosure in the legislative process are vital to a representative democracy.