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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Expediency can keep the public out of the public’s business in Olympia

The members of the House Appropriations Committee were gathered, in one of those Capitol hearing rooms in Olympia, ostensibly for the purpose of gathering public testimony on legislative proposals.

It was 10:45 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 10.

When it came time to take testimony on House Bill 2244, chairman Ross Hunter announced that no one had signed up to testify. This was, perhaps, not surprising, given the lateness of the hour – and given that House Bill 2244 had been left off the agenda.

When Hunter noted that there was no testimony, the other members of the committee chuckled. The bow-tied Hunter kind of shrugged, not exactly sheepishly.

“You know,” he said, “people have an opportunity to see this on TV. So that will close public testimony on 2244, and we will now return to executive session.”

That’s one way to handle pesky public testimony. The problem is that, while this instance stands out thanks to a couple of zingy details – late night, no agenda item – the general pattern is troublingly persistent, some observers say: In the crush of legislative deadlines, the rules that supposedly ensure that the public gets a chance to learn about and weigh in on bills before they become laws are routinely ignored.

Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center noted the absurdity of the Feb. 10 hearing in a blog post. He’s opposed to the substance of House Bill 2244, which engages in a kind of budget trickery that he says will make a mockery of the new four-year balanced budget amendment – in its first year.

“The Monday hearing, the 10:45 public hearing on a bill not on the agenda – that’s bad,” he said. “What made it more important to me is that the bill … guts the balanced budget amendment.”

He added, “But it really doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. It’s kind of a joke to have a public hearing at 10:45 at night and it’s not on the agenda.”

Mercier and the center push for conservative “market solutions” to government issues in Olympia and statewide. The center also has been pressing for a better public process with regard to proposed legislation – one that requires more time between a bill’s submission and public hearings, that eliminates “place-holder” bill filings with only the titles included, and makes it difficult or impossible to waive the rules. The idea is to give the public and other lawmakers more of a chance to digest and debate proposals before votes.

Everyone’s for this in principle, but public participation and debate slows down and mucks up the process and gets in the way of advancing the legislative priorities of the leadership, and so it may not be a surprise that not everyone is for this in practice.

Mercier acknowledges that Washington’s Legislature has strong rules providing for public notice and testimony. But he says that the rules are often set aside.

“If you watch the budget committee hearings, every single one opens with them waiving the rules,” he said.

In particular, Mercier said, the tendency for bills to be rushed through the pipeline hurts those of us on the dry side. Even in cases where legislation is put forth and public hearings scheduled early enough for Spokane folks to head over and testify – they very often arrive to find that the legislation has been rewritten, or is being rewritten, as substitute legislation that is not yet available.

“Kind of makes it hard to testify on what the impacts of the bill might be,” he said.

He said some states are experimenting with ways to make it easier for far-flung residents to weigh in before legislators. In Alaska, for instance, public testimony is taken via teleconferences. Nevada’s Legislature takes public testimony by videoconference. Mercier thinks Washington lawmakers could try to do something similar, if they were so inclined.

Are they, though? The challenge of getting things done in Olympia can be truly daunting, and there are deadlines. In addition, the pathway from bill to law is littered with false starts, amendments, changes and compromises – all of that is necessary to the process, unless we want yearlong legislative sessions. HB 2244, for example, was a proposal to execute a bit of budget gimmickry – counting money here that had been moved there, to make the budget seem balanced – that never stood a chance in the Senate.

And on Feb. 10, lawmakers were working late into the night trying to beat a bill deadline the following day. Those time-crunches, and the kinds of trade-offs that occur during them, can’t be legislated away, and there will always be times when expediency wins the day.

This expediency is not simply a matter of convenience for lawmakers. When the Legislature fails to complete its business on time and goes into special sessions, people – sometimes including the Washington Policy Center – howl.

And there is another, mostly unspoken, piece to this issue: Some minority conservatives in Olympia might support putting more rigid transparency rules into place as much for political advantage and the general gunking-up of law-passing as for a commitment to openness.

Still, it seems strange that we required weeks of consideration and testimony to outlaw sitting or lying on the sidewalks in Spokane, and the Legislature passed the 2013-15 state budget less than 24 hours after it was introduced.

Mercier’s been beating this drum for years. He’s not holding his breath about any imminent change. He inched the boulder up the hill a bit, though, by getting the public testimony proposals placed into actual bill form. Four Republicans, including Spokane Valley Rep. Matt Shea, sponsored legislation that would require a 72-hour notice for all legislative hearings, among other measures.

It never had a public hearing.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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