Sunshine Week forecast: Cloudy with a chance of progress

By JASON MERCIER  | 
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Mar 14, 2017

Happy National Sunshine Week! This is the time of year we celebrate our right to know what public officials are doing on our behalf and the importance of open government and access to public records. With some serious storm clouds brewing at the national level, how is the open government forecast looking here in Washington state? Currently the transparency outlook is cloudy with a chance of open government progress. 

Now when I looked at the forecast yesterday morning it looked like things were starting to clear up but by the evening 32 storm watches were issued. These warnings took the form of 32 Title Only bills being placed on this morning introduction sheet by the House (13) and the Senate (19). Though lawmakers say they can't function at the end of session without Title Only bills (essentially blank pieces of legislation) the fact remains they exist primarily to circumvent the state constitution. 

According to Article 2, Section 36 of the state Constitution:

"No bill shall be considered in either house unless the time of its introduction shall have been at least ten days before the final adjournment of the legislature, unless the legislature shall otherwise direct by a vote of two-thirds of all the members elected to each house, said vote to be taken by yeas and nays and entered upon the journal, or unless the same be at a special session."

To get around this constitutional restriction on new bills being introduced in the last ten days of session, lawmakers use title only bills as a placeholder to place the real text of legislation in at a later time without having to secure the two-thirds vote required if the bill were dropped after the cutoff period.

My favorite types of Title Only bills are the ones "relating to revenue" or "fiscal matters." Here is the complete text for one of the five "Relating to revenue" title only bills introduced today: "This act may be known and cited as the revenue act."

Perhaps this Title Only bill will become the largest tax increase in state history. Or maybe the largest tax cut. Or perhaps it will now require all state taxes to be paid using Bitcoin. The possibilities are endless. Guess we'll have to wait for the actual text when it gets posted just before legislative action on the bill. 

Along with the explosion of Title Only bills today we also saw earlier this session the troubling occurrence of tax bills being pulled directly from committee to the floor without a public hearing or notice of executive action. Now while there wasn't really a serious threat of these tax bills passing, the anti-transparent precedent set is very troubling. 

Cloudy to be sure but there have also been signs of sunbreaks this session and the possibility of real open government reforms moving forward. 

First let's give the Senate props for continuing to open the legislative door to all Washingtonians with remote testimony. One only need to look at the mountain pass warnings from WSDOT over the past few months to see how critical this option is to providing citizens from across the state the ability to participate in the legislative process. Now we just need the House to also take advantage of remote testimony options for Washingtonians. It looks like this is exactly what the House is doing, at least the Idaho House that is

After a years long contentious fight it looks like significant process is also being made this year to modernize the state's landmark public records act. Major kudos to the sponsors of HB 1594/1595 for working with stakeholders this past year to perfect their public records proposal. This collaborative process is in stark contrast to the previous efforts over the years to ram through major changes to the public records law that could have gutted its impact. One of the potential reforms that may come out of this new effort is the state enacting an open government portal like Utah has

And last but certainly not least, we have seen major reforms to open up the secret public sector collective bargaining process. First was the contract transparency resolution adopted by Lincoln County. Next to adopt this reform was the Pullman School District. Now we are hearing new Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier is exploring ways to bring more transparency to the county's public sector contract talks (perhaps using something like the Costa Mesa Civic Openness in Negotiations process). 

Although SB 5545 (Requiring public employee collective bargaining sessions to be open meetings) didn't advance this session, there is still the possibility it could be resuscitated during budget talks when discussions on whether to fund the secretly negotiated state employee contracts begin in earnest.

We have had darker sunshine week forecasts in the past but there is still work to do before we get that brilliant open government sunshine we all want and deserve. 

Additional Information
Title only bills used to circumvent state Constitution
Remote testimony opens the legislative process for all Washingtonians
Time to open to public view negotiations for state worker salaries