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By Jason Mercier
Contributing Writer 

Legislature needs to put ‘public’ back into public hearings

 

March 20, 2012



Do lawmakers in Olympia really want to hear from citizens on the bills they are considering, or are they more interested in catering to the needs of lobbyists and special interests?

Although Washington’s lawmakers have adopted rules that appear to provide the public an opportunity to participate in the legislative debate, the casual way they routinely waive these rules shows they are often more responsive to lobbyists.

According to the House of Representatives, among its official goals is to “increase public participation, understanding, and transparency of the legislative process...,” and “enact high-quality legislation through debate and collaboration that is thoughtful and responsive, and honors our diverse citizenry.”

This common-sense principle reflects a fundamental premise of our democracy: The governed should be able to comment on the proposed laws we have to live under to ensure those elected to represent us are informed about our opinions and expectations.

To facilitate public involvement the Legislature’s rules require that, “At least five days notice shall be given of all public hearings held by any committee other than the rules committee. Such notice shall contain the date, time and place of such hearing together with the title and number of each bill, or identification of the subject matter, to be considered at such hearing.”

In practice, however, these rules have little effect on the actual conduct of the Legislature.

Consider the introduction last week of the House Democrats’ 233-page budget proposal. This complex budget plan was first made public at 9:15 Tuesday morning, yet the House Ways and Means Committee held a public hearing on it just hours later at 3:30 p.m. (The hearing was first publicly announced the previous Saturday night, days before the bill was available to the public.) It simply isn’t practical for most people to even learn of, let alone attend, a public hearing and offer thoughtful comment on such short notice.

Then there was the scheduling for one of the most important and controversial proposals of the year, a bill to change the teacher-evaluation system. After the original bill was blocked by the Senate Education Committee Chair Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, despite majority support of committee members, Senate leaders announced a public hearing on two title-only bills (bills with no text) on less than two hours notice.

Despite only two hours notice of a hearing on blank bills, many education special-interests groups were all too ready to testify on the “details” of this mysterious bill. These details appeared later as amendments placing the text of the stalled teacher-evaluation bills into the blank title-only bills. Either these lobbyists are clairvoyant, or they were given special access to information that was denied to the public.

Repeated examples like these are why Washington Policy Center is proposing the following:

•Require at least 72 hours public notification before any bill receives a public hearing;

•Prohibit title-only bills (no public hearing or vote should occur on a “ghost bill” with no text); and

•No votes on final passage until the final bill version has been publicly available for 24 hours.

Showing the bipartisan appeal of our recommendations, open government defenders Attorney General Rob McKenna and State Auditor Brian Sonntag have endorsed them and are encouraging lawmakers to enact these common-sense transparency protections.

As clearly shown by lawmakers’ ongoing lack of commitment to real public hearings, additional legislative transparency protections remain needed so that the public can be put back into “public hearings.” Otherwise, lawmakers should just end the charade and rename them “special-interest hearings,” since that is whom they have geared the current system toward in practice.

Jason Mercier is the government reform director at Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan independent policy research organization in Washington state. For more information visit washingtonpolicy.org.

 

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