RIP legislative transparency – legislature ignores Title Only bill reform

About the Author
Jason Mercier
Director, Center for Government Reform

Based on the overwhelming public outcry last year and the fact a lawsuit was filed, I had great hopes that at least one of the bills proposing reform to the legislature’s abuse of Title Only bills would receive a public hearing. Sadly, none of the bills were deemed worthy by the majority party in either the House or the Senate and they all died a premature death last week.

Here are the Title Only reform bills that didn’t receive a public hearing before cutoff:

While incredibly disappointing, the courts still have an opportunity to do the job the legislature refused to and finally end the practice of blank bills being used to circumvent the restrictions found in Article 2, Section 36 of the state constitution:

“WHEN BILLS MUST BE INTRODUCED. 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.”

On February 13, King County Superior Court is set to hear a lawsuit challenging last year’s Title Only bill bank tax increase.

The Attorney General is trying to prevent the court from even considering the case, however, claiming the games played by the legislature are immune from judicial review.

Should the court ultimately refuse to consider this issue, remember to file away this argument from the Attorney General for future use:

The Attorney General appears to be inviting lawmakers to file a legal challenge to Title Only bills acted on while saying the people can’t.

One problem with that argument, however, is the assumption that section of the constitution is meant to protect lawmaker's rights versus those of the people.

As noted by the state’s editorial pages:

  • Tri-City Herald: “For years state legislators have been allowed to file title-only bills in order to get around transparency rules. It is an appalling practice, and it needs to end.”
  • Vancouver Columbian: “Such bills reflect a deceptive strategy that undermines transparency and the notion of an open government that is beholden to the public.”
  • Everett Herald: “Legislation that starts as a title-only bill, however, can become a problem in the waning days of a legislative session, as was the case with HB 2167 . . . The legislation had about 55 hours of vetting that included quickly called testimony in hearings, limited floor debate and scant opportunity for the public to comment on whether the tax increase on banks would be a good idea.”
  • Walla Walla Union Bulletin (reprinted in Yakima Herald Republic): “Title-only bills are essentially a scam that circumvents the state constitution, which mandates all pieces of legislation must be introduced at least 10 days before the end of a legislative session so the public has time to be heard before it is approved into law.”

With the legislature refusing to even consider Title Only bill reform, it is now more important than ever for the courts to step in and provide real meaning to the protections found in our state constitution.

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