Tri-City Herald: House leaders got it right in delaying budget hearing

Amid the rush of state legislative deadlines, a surprising and refreshing calm accompanied the release of the House operating budget this year.

Instead of following the usual practice of releasing the complex document just hours before the hearing scheduled to discuss it, the House delayed the public session by three days so people could have time to review it.

That is how it should be.

Unfortunately, that is not how it has been — in the House or the Senate.

Typically the public hearing occurs just hours after the news conference announcing the budget’s release, which is exactly how it worked in the Senate this year.

To think anyone can peruse a several-hundred paged document summarizing the spending of millions of dollars and then be prepared to testify at a public hearing a few hours later is ridiculous.

Yet that has been standard procedure for about as long as anyone can remember.

Last year, the Senate showed promise in providing a full day between releasing the budget and the public hearing, but this time around they went back to their inadequate course.

The Senate announced at 8 p.m. on March 30 there would be a public hearing on the budget the next day. The budget was released around mid-day March 31 and the public hearing was scheduled for 3:30 that same afternoon. At the Senate Ways and Means Committee meeting, only Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, objected to the short notice and suggested the public hearing be delayed so people could have more time to prepare.

His suggestion was dismissed and the hearing continued.

Compare that with the attitude this year of the House GOP leadership who asked House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, to permit a day to review the budget before the hearing. Chopp went above and beyond and instead extended it by three days.

The following is an excerpt from the request by House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, and signed by the Republican caucus leadership. It asks Chopp for more time to study the budget before the public hearing, and states the issue beautifully:

“While we are sympathetic to the need to adopt a budget and complete our business within the 105 days allotted for the current Session, we are troubled that the public will effectively have no time to read, review, testify or otherwise weigh-in with their representatives on the operating budget under your current schedule.

“We are sure you would agree that public participation is a crucial part of our legislative process, and it is especially critical when we are dealing with complex fiscal matters involving lengthy spending provisions and complicated revenue explanations ...”

Finally, some legislative leaders are remembering the public they represent.

Hammering out a budget without public input on the final package goes against the spirit of the Open Meetings Act. Even if individual budget items have been discussed in public earlier in the process, people need time to digest the entire operating budget before a public hearing.

The House got it right. We hope it sets a precedent.