Open government is almost meaningless if the door is 300 miles away.
Each January, the Washington Legislature assembles in Olympia to do the people’s work; as best the senators and representatives know it.
For the next four months, Eastern Washington lawmakers must rely on their staffs, email, snail mail, telephone calls and occasional visits home to keep them in touch with constituents. But keeping up with fast-moving developments in the Capitol, let alone contributing to the discussion of major legislation, is nearly impossible for those constituents, even for addicts of TVW, the state television network that does an excellent job of broadcasting committee hearings and other Olympia activities.
Sometimes, the futility is obvious. For example:
The Washington Senate released its $33.5 billion, 401-page budget for the 2013-2015 biennium at 11 a.m., April 3. Hearings began at 3:30 p.m. and concluded several hours later. Dozens of witnesses testified – very briefly. Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke, who is also president of the Washington Association of Counties, was at the microphone for one minute, 33 seconds.
The senators approved their work two days later. The House of Representatives made equally swift work of its budget last week.
Remember that cliché, “You had to be there?” Odds are you weren’t, and really had no hope of attending.
Eastern Washington residents should not be on the outside looking in. There are solutions.
Nevada has allowed residents to video-conference into hearings since 1997. From 145 hearings that year, the number had increased to 729 in 2011. Most of the attendees are in Las Vegas, 400 miles distant from the capital in Carson City, but there are almost 200 sites in the network, which costs less than $25,000 to operate.
Surely, the state of Washington has the capability to implement a similar system using the community colleges or other state facilities. It ought to be doable on smartphones or pads.
But intelligent commentary requires time to review legislative proposals. That is impossible for laymen who have not been hanging about the Capitol like lobbyists. And to fast-tracking voluminous Senate and House budgets, add another insulting practice: title-only bills that are mere bookmarks for legislation not yet in finished form.
The Center for Government Reform within the Washington Policy Center advocates waiting periods between the day a bill is submitted and the hearing date, completion of the text before legislators vote and elimination of title-only bills. These changes make sense, especially for those who might testify if they did not have to clear Snoqualmie Pass in midwinter to do it.
Officials like Mielke have the time, and the responsibility, to bring their message to Olympia. For most in Eastern Washington, a day on the road to deliver less than two minutes of commentary is out of the question.