2013 state Legislature has shot at needed reforms

January 9, 2013 

When the Legislature convenes Monday, the Senate will be run by a bipartisan caucus created when two members of the Democratic Party joined minority Republicans to form a hybrid majority.

The move fascinates political wonks, but it's only meaningful if the power-sharing arrangement results in some fundamental changes in the way the Legislature conducts the people's business.

A proposal to amend the constitution to make state government more open and transparent would make a great litmus test for whether the 2013 Senate can offer more than business as usual.

Bills that would enact a slate of common-sense reforms have been introduced in the past two sessions but died without a vote.

Getting the Legislature to change its ways is difficult for a simple reason -- the status quo favors the party in power. When you have the power to do what you want, why introduce changes that could make it more difficult to exercise that power?

But the reason things ought to change is even simpler -- it's the right thing to do.

As it stands, lawmakers can suspend the rules whenever it's convenient, virtually locking the public -- and frequently other legislators -- out of the process.

Sometimes the most important bills are pushed though without time to consider the consequences. "It's a disservice to our constituents that we get the budget bill 20 minutes before it goes to the floor for a vote," Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, told the Herald editorial board this week.

But the most absurd technique involves title-only bills, also called ghost bills -- terms that accurately describe this corrupt practice.

Bills can and have been introduced and passed out of committee in a single day, without any text attached, just a number and a title.

Legislative committees exist to pore over to fine print and thoroughly understand proposed legislation before making a recommendation.

A crucial part of the process is the public hearing, where interested parties can argue for or against the proposal. Title-only bills are a dereliction of duty.

The push for an amendment to ban such practices is spearheaded by the conservative-leaning Washington Policy Center and endorsed by former Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, and former state Auditor Brian Sonntag, a Democrat.

A constitutional amendment, rather than simple legislation, is required because the changes would bind future legislatures.

A bill to start the process was is sponsored by eight Republicans -- including Jerome Delvin of Richland -- and one Democrat but couldn't gain any traction in the Democratically controlled Senate.

The proposed changes are modest. The amendment simply would require that no bill be passed without a public hearing, no hearing be held on a bill with less than 72 hours notice and no title-only bills.

State Sen. Rodney Tom of Bellevue, one of two Democrats who crossed party lines to form the Senate's bipartisan majority caucus -- and the new majority leader -- said he's motivated by a desire to improve government.

"This is not about power. This is not about control," Tom told reporters in Olympia. "This is about governing in a collaborative manner."

That collaboration ought to include constituents who must live with the Legislature's actions and the taxpayers who foot the bill.

The Legislature should pursue an amendment to bar practices that cut the public out of the process. And operate in the meantime as if the amendment already exists.

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