February 26, 2014 | Vol.54 N.9

Time for Legislature to live by open government rules

With policy cutoff behind us the list of living and walking dead bills (nothing is really dead till sine die) is being compiled. Among the proposals that didn’t even receive a hearing, however, is a bill based on WPC’s recommendation for the Legislature to truly provide Washingtonians the opportunity to participate in the legislative debate while also ensuring lawmakers live by the same open government rules the rest of the state’s public officials operate under.

As noted by Peter Callaghan of The Tacoma News Tribune:

“Lots of stuff gets introduced in the Washington Legislature that is never heard from again.

Most of the time, that’s OK. But one bill that should have at least gotten some discussion was House Bill 2369. The measure would have imposed on the Legislature the same transparency requirements that local governments and state administrative bodies already face.

The House and Senate would have to follow basic notice and waiting periods before acting on legislation, for example, under HB 2369 and a Senate version filed Friday. The bills also would require that all legislative committees be open to the public.

The Legislature regularly ignores or suspends its notice rules. It also often denies public access to significant committee action by recessing for ‘committee caucuses.’ The members divide by party and meet privately to discuss bills and count heads.

Local government councils and state agency boards can meet in secret under the state open public meetings law but only for specific reasons expressed in that law. Secret ballots — even straw polls — are illegal, and governing bodies must conduct all ‘deliberations, discussions, considerations, reviews, evaluations and final actions’ in public.”

A Senate companion to HB 2369 was introduced in response to the light speed vote on the “DREAM/Real Hope Act.” In her press release announcing SB 6560, Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry said:

“‘To pass a bill on the Friday before the Super Bowl, with less than twenty-four hours’ notice, goes against everything I stand for when it comes to giving citizens a voice and encouraging their participation in the legislative process,’ said Holmquist Newbry. ‘The public was kept in the dark. That is not acceptable and shouldn’t be what accountable, transparent government is all about.’”

HB 2369 wasn’t the only bill that would have required more legislative transparency to receive no public hearing. Lawmakers also couldn’t find time to hear from the public on HJR 4217: Amending the Constitution regarding the people’s right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business.

Writing about HJR 4217 prior to cutoff The Olympian said:

“A similar proposed constitutional amendment in the House (HJR 4217) would also make clear there is no legislative privilege to secrecy. HJR 4217, however, has yet to be scheduled for a public hearing.

The Legislature should send one of these historical and national precedent-setting joint resolutions to voters. We expect either would easily win voters’ approval.

They are vitally important measures for two reasons.

First, the constitutional amendments would establish the principle that a truly open and transparent government starts at the top. Second, either would erase any justification from lawmakers not to apply the Public Records Act to the Legislature itself.

In a thorough review of the state’s Public Records Act by the non-partisan William D. Ruckelshaus Center at Washington State University it questioned the legislative exemption. Why is the state Legislature excused from disclosure requirements that apply to city councils, school boards, fire commissioners and state agencies?

During a media forum at the beginning of the current session legislative leaders expressed willingness to discuss whether it was time for lawmakers to subject themselves to the state’s open government laws. The time for action is now.”

Along with giving these open government reforms more serious consideration next session, hopefully lawmakers will also continue to explore opportunities for remote testimony options for citizens.

One silver lining this session is the new Open Government Caucus. The goal of the members is to discuss opportunities to improve open government and transparency. Of particular note at the first meeting of the caucus on February 3 was this statement from Rep. Mark Hargrove on the need for the Legislature to open all of its meetings up to the public.

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