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Spin Control: Neither side has corner on budget transparency

OLYMPIA – As the state Senate descended into an extended match of political jujitsu Friday, the word of the night – perhaps the entire legislative session – was “transparency.”

It sprang so readily from the lips of legislators that it was important to remember the various sides meant something different as they claimed they had it and the other didn’t. In politics, people often use a word like Humpty Dumpty: It means what they say it means, nothing more and nothing less.

This session, transparency seems to be like one of those windows one sees on television cop shows, where officers watch through one-way glass as a detective grills the suspect. It’s transparent from the dark little room where other cops watch but reflectively opaque to the suspect, even when he walks to the glass on his side and mutters, “I know you’re back there, you lousy coppers.”

To Republicans, who managed a parliamentary coup with the help of three disgruntled Democrats, transparency meant forcing a vote on a budget that until that afternoon was little more than a rumor and a collection of ideas they long said they’d enact if they were in charge. Bipartisanship had broken down and they’d been shut out of the process, they said.

Democrats said voting on a budget that they hadn’t seen and that hadn’t been through a financial analysis or public hearing was not transparent. Bipartisanship had been alive and well before Friday, and their budget, which had been released Tuesday, the 51st day of a 60-day session, was transparent even if it might not have the votes to make it to the floor. That claim seemed to overlook repeated criticism of the overall budgeting process from fiscal watchdogs like Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center, who noted the Senate Democrats’ budget was subjected to a hearing barely five hours after its release and the whole process was rife with hearings that didn’t meet required waiting periods.

Such actions fly in the face of rules designed to foster – wait for it – transparency.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, who also denounced Republicans for a lack of transparency, may have had a bit of standing, considering that she released a budget in November, more than a week before the Legislature came to town for a special session. It was reviewed and dissected, with a general consensus that it had something for everyone to hate. While that budget arguably was transparent, her message was a bit disingenuous: Show up after Thanksgiving, pass my budget that cuts $2 billion and axes some vital programs, ask voters to raise the sales tax to buy some programs back, go home for Christmas, and return in 2012 to focus on reforms. The only thing missing from that wish list was world peace.

The most interesting thing about these malleable definitions of transparency is that up to Friday, the budget process the public could see wasn’t that much different from last year. Budgets that account for about $30 billion in spending and span more than 200 pages of details on state programs were negotiated by a handful of legislators then scheduled for hearing on short notice.

People likely to be affected by cuts and groups that feel they bear an unfair burden of government requirements or taxes got a few minutes to express themselves. Rarely did anyone say, “Instead of cutting me, cut Program A, Policy B and Agency C” or “To cover the millions this exemption is going to cost you, raise taxes on industries X, Y and Z.” That might be a bit too transparent.

Leading Democrats like Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane and Ways and Means Chairman Ed Murray of Seattle are probably right when they say things are more transparent than they were years ago. But based on the stories, that seems a pretty low standard.

Some years the state gets a budget everybody dislikes but enough people are willing to swallow and approve. This year we got Friday night’s use of a parliamentary procedure that’s invoked less often than baseball’s infield fly rule, and is probably as well understood. Great theater, but whether it makes for a better budget remains to be seen.

Murray said adding more time for the public to study and vet the budgets is next to impossible for a 60-day session with part-time legislators. He’s right, if they keep the current schedule where the calendar starts the first week of January, and the days fall away without break, even for weekends when no one’s around.

But how difficult would it be to pass an amendment to break the session in half, with a rule that each party in each chamber must release a budget at the end of 30 days, then take a week or two off before holding hearings and finishing the spending decisions? At the start of the second half, Ways and Means committees would be required to hold simultaneous hearings on both party’s budgets, giving the public a chance to compare and contrast, not just comment.

It could mean that when the two parties have different views of transparency, the public might be better able to determine whose truth approaches reality. And when legislators push out the inevitable last-minute compromise, more people will feel like they’re looking through the window with the cops, not staring at the mirror with the perp.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia Bureau Chief Jim Camden, also appears online at blogs/spincontrol.
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