With Democrats very much in control in Olympia and Republicans on the sidelines, one would expect the Legislature to close this year’s looming $2.8 billion budget gap with orderly dispatch. Instead Washingtonians were treated to a dizzying round of closed-door meetings, surprise hearings, do-overs, missed deadlines and bills with no text.
In the end the Legislature created or raised 17 taxes, boosting revenues by $800 million. To get that done, lawmakers first repealed Initiative 960’s voter-enacted tax limits. Conveniently (for them), the repeal included canceling the rule that roll-call votes on tax increases appear in the official voters’ pamphlet. The repeal took two attempts, because at one point senators accidentally passed the wrong bill.
Overall, the session was marked by low public involvement and lack of transparency. Consider Senate Bill 6853, to make major changes in the tax code. It was introduced on Feb. 9 and contained the words “An act relating to creating the legislative review tax preferences act of 2010” and nothing else. Apparently key lawmakers planned to insert provisions at some later date. In the meantime the public received no hint about what the bill might eventually do.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee then had the otherworldly experience of holding a hearing on a bill with no text. First, the committee took 21 seconds to waive Rule 45, providing that bills under consideration be available to the public for at least five days. Then, staff gave a technical briefing on the bill. That took 35 seconds. Next the only public witness, Amber Carter of the Association of Washington Business, spoke for 65 seconds, speculating about what the bill might contain someday and how it could impact Washington’s economy.
In closing, she respectfully asked that the public be informed of any future discussions, should lawmakers decide to provide the bill with content. Finally, the committee passed the bill – that took 21 seconds. Still unknown was how the bill might affect the jobs, families and businesses of the people of the state.
Or take the unusual case of Senate Bill 6889, a bill to transfer control of the state convention center to King County officials. The bill was introduced on March 18, but a public hearing was held March 17, the day before it officially existed. Details about the bill were not made available until after the hearing had started, rendering the whole idea of taking public comment pointless.
Equally economical was lawmakers’ method for considering Senate Bill 6260, to create a state income tax. Shortly before lunch on March 4, the Ways and Means Committee announced a public hearing on the bill. The hearing took place that afternoon, in direct violation of the five-day notice requirement. As Tim Ford, open government ombudsman for the attorney general, put it, “It would be illegal for a local government to provide less than 24 hours notice of a special hearing.”
One evening a hearing on an important budget bill was announced for the following day, but no time or place was provided. Not to worry. The notice made it clear the hearing would be “Broadcast LIVE on TVW,” the public affairs channel, so citizens could watch their representatives at work. The location, though, turned out to be the chamber of the Senate Rules Committee, a room with no TVW coverage.
As the capstone to an unorthodox session, House and Senate leaders decided to forgo the normal conference committee process for finalizing the budget. Instead a handful of top members met for weeks in a series of tense closed-door meetings. Republicans were pointedly not invited. Meanwhile, most lawmakers of both parties went home while they waited for the insiders to announce a final package.
Raising taxes in a recession is never popular, which explains the secretive procedures legislative leaders turned to when passing controversial bills. The irony is that after all the intricate contortions, the Legislature only managed to pass a short-term fix – the budget is only balanced through the middle of next year. That means when lawmakers meet again next January, they will face a new shortfall, currently estimated at $2.2 billion. Hopefully, Olympia will learn that shunning the public is not the way to set state spending on a sustainable path.