When negotiators from the state House and Senate begin meeting Monday to hammer out a budget compromise, the public will be invited to observe for the first time in state history.
House Republican leaders, who called for the open meetings, say the public scrutiny will prevent the kind of closed-door dealmaking that led to a $1.1 billion tax and fee increase two years ago.
“The public has never had any exposure to this,” said House speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee. “This is a bold new step.”
Critics fear that allowing the public to watch will only make lawmakers afraid to hold an honest debate.
“If you believe having every special interest group there and the members of the press, and think you’re going to get an open discussion, you don’t understand the system,” said Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton.
Senate leaders have been less than enthusiastic about open meetings, but had little choice when House Republicans threatened to walk out of any meetings that weren’t public.
“How I feel about it isn’t news and doesn’t matter. We’ll work under whatever system is in place,” said Sen. James West, R-Spokane, a long-time opponent of open conference committees who will be one of the six budget negotiators.
Open meetings advocates have little sympathy for lawmakers leery of public scrutiny.
“That kind of stand epitomizes why people are distrustful of politicians,” said Shawn Newman, an Olympia attorney who last year helped run an unsuccessful initiative campaign to require open meetings.
“This is not a private corporation they are operating. We expect these decisions to be made in public,” Newman said.
Just how much real negotiation the public will get to witness remains to be seen.
An agenda for the first public meeting today indicates that little real action will take place. Instead, the meeting will consist of an “overview” of the state’s economy, followed by a briefing on the differences between House and Senate budget proposals.
Spokane lawmakers hold two of the six positions on the budget panel: West and Rep. Jean Silver, R-Spokane, who chairs the House budget committee.
The other negotiators are Senate budget committee chairwoman Sen. Nita Rinehart, D-Seattle, vice chairwoman Sen. Valoria Loveland, D-Pasco, House majority leader Rep. Dale Foreman, R-Wenatchee and Rep. Helen Sommers, the ranking Democrat on the House budget committee.
The negotiators will have their work cut out for them.
The Republican-controlled House has proposed a budget that comes in at $600 million under the Senate Democrats’ version. The two budgets differ on everything from tax cuts to state funding for abortions.