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Legislator Wants To Open Door To Public

Clyde Ballard says it’s time the public’s business is done in public, instead of behind closed doors in Olympia.

Ballard is expected to be named House speaker when the state Legislature convenes Monday. His commitment to open conference committees this year puts him on a collision course with the Senate, which may prove a formidable obstacle to reform.

Senate Majority Leader Marcus Gaspard, D-Puyallup, indicated through a spokeswoman Tuesday he is concerned that opening conference committees would lengthen the legislative session.

But Ballard hinted if the Senate refuses to go along, the House may call for open meetings anyway, effectively isolating the Senate as a holdout against reform.

“I’m hopeful we can come out united on this, but if not, I still believe the process should be opened,” Ballard said. “We need to restore confidence in government. This is simply the right thing to do. As far as I’m concerned, there will be changes made.”

Washington is one of only a handful of states that still allows lawmakers to hammer out the final version of bills in secret conference committees.

In the past two years, the final version of nearly every landmark bill was negotiated in secret, including a sweeping crime bill, more than $1 billion in tax and fee increases, and a health care reform bill that rewrote the rules governing health insurance.

Just six members of the House and Senate got together to craft a final version of the bills. Sometimes even minority party members were excluded from the secret discussions.

The final versions that emerged from the closed door meetings were often very different from the ones debated and voted on in open session. Members of the full House and Senate had no choice but to vote the bills up or down, without amendment, as current rules require.

All that would change under a package of reforms Ballard said he may announce Monday, the session’s opening day.

“It’s all still under discussion,” he said. “But I have strong personal feelings that these meetings should be open. We’ll meet with the Senate and hopefully put together joint rules that will open the doors.”

Ballard wants the rules changed so notice of conference committees would be posted. No testimony would be taken, but the meetings would be open to anyone who chooses to go.

A survey of state legislatures by The Spokesman-Review last year showed 36 of 45 states that use conference committees require them to meet in public.

Three other states leave the matter up to the discretion of committee chairmen; three require the meetings to be open but ignore the law and five don’t use conference committees.

Only New Mexico, Mississippi and Washington close conference committees by tradition or statute.

The committees are even open in Arizona, where lawmakers were caught stuffing cash in gym bags in a 1991 bribery sting, and in Maryland, where corruption has ensnared two governors and several other public officials.

In Washington, the Legislature specifically exempted itself from the 1971 state open meetings law, which demands open meetings in every other state board, commission, committee, department, school or other state agency, except the courts.

Internal House and Senate rules don’t speak to how conference committee negotiations should be conducted.

But the committees have been closed by tradition in Washington as long as anyone can remember.

To change the practice lawmakers must agree to new joint rules, which are set during the first two weeks of the legislative session.

xxxx OTHER STATES Most states require that conference committees, where lawmakers negotiate final versions of legislation, be open to the public. Here are the states in the region that go against the open committee policy: Idaho: Open by law but closed in practice. Nevada: Open by law, usually closed in practice. Washington: Closed. Source: Staff survey of House and Senate rules in the 50 states in 1994

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