Put the public back in ‘public hearings’

The 2015 legislative session is already unlike any in state history. Thanks to the efforts of Sen. Mike Padden in Spokane and Sen. Sharon Brown in Tri-Cities (among others), citizens will be able to testify live at some committee hearing without having to travel to Olympia.

In addition, Secretary of State Kim Wyman, Sen. Cyrus Habib and Rep. Marcus Riccelli are working on a bill to allow people to pre-record “YouTube” video testimony to send to Olympia. While these are exciting developments to improve the legislative process, these new testimony tools are only as good as the public notice and details lawmakers provide us about the bills under consideration.

Although Washington’s lawmakers have adopted rules on paper that let the public participate in the legislative debate, the casual way they have routinely waived these rules in the past undercuts their protections.

According to the state 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 commonsense principle reflects a fundamental premise of our democracy: Citizens should be able to comment on the proposed laws we will have to live under to ensure lawmakers are informed about our opinions and expectations.

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.”

The rules also supposedly prohibit so-called “title only bills,” a blank bill with a title and a number, but with the text to be filled in later.

In practice, however, legislators submit title only bills anyway. Three have been introduced already in this session:

•  HB 1461: Relating to marijuana

•  SB 5351: Relating to education

•  SB 5352: Relating to education

Why is this a problem? Title-only bills are not a transparent way to introduce changes to state law and they are essentially used by lawmakers to circumvent the state Constitution. New bills are not supposed to be introduced in the last ten days of the session, unless two-thirds of lawmakers agree.

To get around this constitutional restriction, some lawmakers use title-only bills as a placeholder so they can put in the real text at a later time without having to secure the two-thirds vote required if the bill were dropped after the cutoff period.

If the state’s Constitution is truly getting in the way of lawmakers being transparent and providing adequate public notice, it would be better for them to propose repeal of the 10-day limit and replace it with legislative transparency protections that would:

•  Provide mandatory public notice and waiting periods before legislative action;

•  Truly ban title-only bills; and

•  Subject the Legislature to the same transparency requirements that are placed on local governments.

Proposals were introduced last session to implement these legislative transparency requirements (House Bill 2369/Senate Bill 6560) but they did not receive a public hearing.

While the recent development for live remote testimony is truly historic, the ability for citizens to take advantage of this transparency tool will only be as good as the public notice of a hearing and details of a bill to begin with. This is why enacting legislative transparency reforms like those proposed last year by House Bill 2369/Senate Bill 6560 would help put the public back in “public hearings.”