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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

Sunday Spin: When public notice isn’t much help to the public

Transparency in government is a great ideal, but like so many things it can be somewhat less than ideal in practice.

Take, for example, the edict of Initiative 960 that the Office of Financial Management let the public know the cost of legislation that could tap the state treasury. Excellent idea, because one never knows what the Legislature will dream up when all that brainpower is assembled in Olympia. . . 

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. . .And because one also never knows how one person’s idea will get amended or extended as a bill makes its way through the legislative maze, I-960 says OFM will report on the 10-year cost to taxpayers as a bill is introduced in a chamber, passes a committee, passes that chamber and repeats the process in the other chamber. And, if it has to come back to the first chamber for even more work, the reporting process continues, whether the fiscal impact changes or not.

On paper, this makes perfect sense, particularly for a bill introduced in January, getting its first hearing in February, a floor vote a few weeks later and moving into the other chamber in March. The notices also tell who introduced the bill and how legislators voted. Should you want to call your favorite legislator to say “way to go” or “you bozo,” that’s handy information.

Where it falls apart is in the final week of a session, when, as anyone with the stamina to watch the late great double-overtime knows, the bulk of the important stuff happens, along with quite a few ancillary things that are needed to grease the wheels of democracy. OFM gets behind, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to send out its I-960 reports at some point.

Sometimes, that’s after the Legislature has gone home.

Last Wednesday evening, people subscribing to the OFM electronic messaging system got notice of the introduction of Senate Bill 5444, which would ease the burden of some yearly tax assessments on county assessors. It had a relatively small fiscal impact, $1.9 million over 10 years. Another notice came 17 minutes later saying it had passed its first Senate committee. Four minutes later, word it had passed the Senate budget committee. Five minutes later came word it passed the Senate. Three minutes later, word it was in the House. Eleven minutes later it was out of its first House committee. Five minutes later, out of the House budget committee. Eight minutes later, it had passed the House.

All this for a bill that passed the Legislature in April and was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 14.

This complies with the letter of the law, but isn’t within the spirit for several of reasons. The obvious one is that the notice is coming out way too late to do anything about anything. Another is that SB 5444 has a relatively small impact, which is likely why when OFM triaged the bills to report, it didn’t rocket to the top. It also sailed through both chambers with very few “no” votes, so it’s unlikely many members of the public were looking for a chance to muster the troops for a demonstration on the Capitol steps.

While the SB 5444 notices were unusual, it’s relatively common to get some notices of bill action after the Legislature blows Dodge. It’s also common during the session to get a multitude of OFM notices on bills on specialized topics like geoduck licensing that get amended and rewritten multiple times.

And the bills with the biggest impact, the operating and capital budgets, get cobbled together, released and passed in such short order at the end of session that the notices can’t keep up.

There should be a way to fix this, to concentrate OFM’s resources on the biggest bills and maybe put limits on those that require some time to get the notices out. A dollar limit might be possible but dangerous because the Legislature could set it low one year and jack it up the next, allowing them to more easily hide things. But after the session is over, for a bill that has already passed and the agency is just getting around to sending out the details, maybe a single notice, which mentions all the steps covered and all the votes taken, would be enough.

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.