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Doors Stay Closed On Key Debates Conference Committees Make Decisions Without Public Input

The invisible Legislature is apparently alive and well, at least for now.

The Legislature conducts most of its business in public during committee hearings and floor debates but has always gone behind closed doors for conference committee meetings to resolve differences between the House and Senate toward the end of the session.

It’s behind those closed doors that the most important work - negotiations over a multi-billion dollar general fund budget - takes place.

Newspapers have asked House and Senate leaders to open the doors to conference committees, arguing that the final resolutions should be reached in public.

Government watchdogs also say the committees should be opened. Shawn Newman, chairman of Citizens for Legislative Accountability Now, says the committees are “historic abuses of public process” because small groups of people making decisions behind closed doors.

Some lawmakers argue that closed committees allow them to let their hair down and engage in tough, sometimes not-so-friendly negotiations.

Opening the meetings will only drive secret talks further underground, they maintain.

There’s no agreement yet to change the way conference committees work because prominent senators in both parties want them to remain closed, said House Minority Leader Brian Ebersole, D-Tacoma, who favors opening the committees.

House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-East Wenatchee, said he would refuse to send House Republicans to closed conference committees.

Neither Senate Majority Leader Marcus Gaspard, D-Puyallup, nor Senate minority Leader Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, would directly answer questions about whether they want the committees opened up.

Gaspard says House Republicans “should come and talk to (Senate) Republicans because they are the ones standing in the way of open conference committees.”

McDonald said that if Ballard won’t send his members to any meeting that is closed, that’s the “end of the story. There won’t be any conference committees unless they are open. How are you going to conference if one of the conferees won’t go unless the conference is open?”

Even if the committees are open, Ebersole said, “you’re not going to get a keyhole into the same conversation” that would have taken place between lawmakers if the committees were closed.

McDonald agreed.

“The dynamics will be different,” he said. “It’s not going to be the same if you discuss these things in an open conference. It’s going to lengthen the process of getting to conclusions. But if that’s what the majority wants, it should be.”

Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, opposes open conference committees.

“You’ll have every special interest there. You’ll have every legislator who wants something from the budget. It will make it extremely difficult to do the difficult negotiations,” Sommers said.


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