Rep. Gary Alexander is a determined man. He's determined to open up the budget process and let the public actually read and understand what programs are being cut and how tax dollars are being spent BEFORE legislators vote on the spending plan.
Imagine that — letting the public see budget details before their representatives cast their all-important votes. Odd as it seems, that’s not the practice today.
The norm in a legislative session finds the House and Senate passing their own versions of the budget. Negotiators then go behind closed doors to work out the differences. Once a deal has been struck, the budget is rushed to the floor of both chambers and legislative leaders call for an immediate vote.
Legislators do not have time to read, let alone digest and react to the spending document. In the days when paper copies of the budget were circulated on the House and Senate floor, the bound pages were still warm to the touch from the copy machine when the vote was recorded.
As he has in the past, Rep. Alexander, R-Olympia, has introduced a bill to bring a halt to the rushed budget vote. House Bill 2872 would require a 72-hour waiting period before final adoption of the budget.
Alexander’s level-headed proposal makes sense. But the sad reality is it likely will be rejected by budget-writing Democrats in the House and Senate.
The “intent” section of Alexander’s budget sunshine act makes a solid case for why the bill should be passed. It states, “The Legislature finds that approval of the state budget is the most important act of the Legislature in any year, having profound consequences for every resident of the state. The Legislature further finds that the public is entitled to a reasonable opportunity to learn how public funds are proposed to be expended before bills making appropriations become law. The Legislature further finds that public notice, dissemination of information, and informed analysis of proposed budgets is an essential requisite of transparent, accountable government.”
Alexander’s bill notes that the abbreviated time frame in which the Legislature acts on multiple budget bills “permits little opportunity for informed legislative deliberation or public review and discussion, which in turn impairs public trust in government.”
As Alexander notes, many other states, in their constitutions, laws or legislative rules, require a reasonable opportunity for public and legislative review.
Under HB 2872, once the state operating budget, construction budget or transportation budget is brought to the floor for amendment, a minimum of 72 hours must pass before a final vote can be taken.
It’s interesting that Alexander, the ranking minority member on the House Ways and Means Committee – the committee responsible for writing this year’s budget – has drawn the support of a couple of Democrats. Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, Rep. Deb Wallace, D-Vancouver and Rep. Mark Ericks, D-Bothell, have signed on as co-sponsors. Perhaps most significantly, Rep. Dawn Morrell, D-Puyallup, has agreed to be a sponsor. Morrell is chairwoman of the majority caucus, a high-ranking leadership position among Democrats. If she wants the bill to pass, she can have a great deal of influence.
Unfortunately, Alexander’s proposal likely will be rejected out of hand by Democrats, who have significant majorities in both the House and Senate.
The answer lies in a saying frequently heard under the legislative dome that goes something like this: “The only numbers that really count here are 50, 25 and 1.” That’s what it takes to pass a budget: 50 votes in the state House of Representatives, 25 votes in the state Senate and the signature of one governor.
Getting to 50, 25 and 1 is no easy task. Even with their lopsided majorities Democrats can have a tough time getting to the magic numbers to pass a budget – especially a budget with a tax increase.
The less time lawmakers have to review the final budget, the less they can find to dislike. Limit the time, limit the debate and it’s easier to get the necessary votes for passage.
That’s not right, but that’s reality in the state Legislature.
Alexander hopes to turn things around. We wish him every success.
Democrats have an opportunity to bring more transparency to their internal operations by letting the public have 72 hours to study budget bills before they are brought to the floor for a vote. It’s the right thing to do. This is a golden opportunity for Democrats to live up to their promises of more openness in government.