Sarah Schacht

Sarah Schacht

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If a bill drops in the legislature & nobody sees it…

December 15, 2010 ,

When Governor Gregiore called special session on Thursday, the 9th, to be held on the 11th, just 36 hours later, I expected a copy of the new budget bill to be made available to the public on Friday. On Thursday, I called the Washington State Legislative Service Center (LSC) and confirmed that the budget bill would be made available through the legislature’s webservice. So, I focused on getting Knowledge As Power’s services up and refreshed for the special session.

But on Saturday, I found our feed of bills from a midnight Friday pull was missing the budget bill. There were about 15 bills, pre-filed for the 2011 session, but no special session bills. I called LSC again and found out that the bill had just been introduced online, at 11 AM. However, the House Ways and Means committee was voting on the bill at 10 AM. Had the Washington State Legislature just moved on the bill it gave the public no time to read? Yes.

The Washington State Legislature failed to post House Bill 3225 to the public legislative information feed and website before a 10 AM House Ways and Means committee meeting. The House and Senate voted to exempt themselves from the 24 wait periods (1st reading, 2nd reading, etc.) for a bill, the house and senate minority parties could have voted against expediting the bill (allowing the public and legislators to read it), but they didn’t. A 188 page bill was introduced to the public after it was already being considered in committee.

So, I went down to Olympia to try to build a timeline for where and when the bill had been in the last 48 hours. Here’s what I could find out:

The Chief Clerk of the House confirmed that the bill was still being written as of “early evening” on Friday. The House Ways and Means Committee staff confirmed that they posted the draft bill on their website and sent notification about the draft through their listserve at 6:30 PM Friday night. When asked why the bill wasn’t pre-filed before session, they said, “there wasn’t time.” However, several bills had been pre-filed for the 2011 session already. I asked why there wasn’t a system for sending the bill over to the web service or posting on the legislative home page in these situations. The answer? “It’d be expensive.” I’m not sure what publishing technology the Ways and Means staff use, but posting a link or sending a plain text file via email shouldn’t be expensive. The vast majority of the public wouldn’t know to subscribe to and check the listserve—they’d be searching for the bill on a site like Knowledge As Power or on the legislature’s website.

What’s clear is that the draft of HB 3225 was circulating at least 16 and a half hours before it was posted for public consumption. Other drafts of the legislation were likely circulating amongst legislators much earlier, however, there’s no way to tell who had copies when because the state legislature exempts itself from public disclosure laws.

The Governor’s office isn’t except from disclosure laws, so I’m making a public disclosure request to the governor’s office for emails and records showing or discussing drafts of bill 3225 and its variants. I’m expecting to be deluged by documents, so I’m asking that those of you with research or journalism experience contact me to join a research team to look through the documents I get back and help piece together a timeline. What I want to know is this: Why was the bill held up for public reading? —Even if it was a few hours extra, it would have given important time for transparency and public comment.

Which brings me to another side of Special Session 2010—the fact that the state “hotline” (a 1-800 number citizens can call into, to make comment to their legislators) was not functioning during session. Nor was the Governor’s phone line “live,” since the phone went automatically to voicemail as an after-hours message played on Saturday morning. Citizens could have called legislative offices directly, but weren’t likely to get a legislator or staffer on the line after the bill posted because many were already in committee or on the House and Senate floor.

Saturday’s Special Session is very concerning from a transparency and citizen engagement perspective. Nevermind that the 188 page bill was written less than 24 hours before it was passed (what legislator will be able to consider the finer details with that timeframe?), the bill was a massive restructuring of tax dollar funding, cutting $101 million from higher ed and public schools, slicing $48 million from corrections, $28 million from health insurance programs for the needy, and moving $200 million in federal dollars away from education to the State’s general fund.

It’s shocking that Washington State leaders could make such significant cuts and restructuring without public oversight and transparency. It’s shameful that such significant budget items will affect millions of Washingtonians who had no opportunity to weigh in on the policy. Worse, the press hasn’t covered this issue. Despite more than a dozen calls to local media on Saturday, and even tromping up the a news truck in the pouring rain in Olympia, briefing them on the transparency issue, I couldn’t get the press to cover the issue.

Am I the only one who cares that sweeping budget revisions were made without transparency and public input? From my conversations with Washingtonians over the last few days, I don’t think I’m alone. But amongst the press and political elite, I am. For them, this is business as usual.

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