The Washington Legislature session that convenes Monday will challenge lawmakers, and members of the public, in unprecedented ways. The pandemic will force much business to be conducted remotely and potentially impair the flow of legislation and impede public access.
Complicating this compromised process are intense demands to reform policing, help people deprived in the pandemic economy, repair education equity, house the homeless and fix neglected infrastructure.
When taking on all these tasks, both chambers should commit to Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig’s words last week.
“My prediction is that this will be the most transparent and accessible session that’s ever happened in the history of the state Legislature,” Billig, D-Spokane, told this editorial board.
That will be a tall order. The public has been shut out of the statehouse for safety reasons, which is a hard but necessary call. The potential for spreading COVID-19 is too risky. But because that limits the amount of scrutiny people can give their elected officials’ actions — from committee meetings to hallway huddles — lawmakers must show they can be trusted to keep the virtual door open.
There are promising signs already. The Senate has agreed to televise all meetings of its powerful Rules Committee for the first time. This meaningful change will reduce the mystery behind which bills will be heard and voted on the Senate floor, and in what order. And remote testimony in committee hearings will finally be allowed as a standard policy, not as an exception.
But many more acts of openness must happen throughout the session.
As leaders of both the Republican House and Senate minority caucuses have noted, they deserve the ability to participate in meaningful debates on bills and amendments in each chamber. The public also deserves full transparency about lobbyists’ influence, including disclosures of participants in lawmakers’ virtual meetings.
And the Legislature must not engage in the odious practice of introducing “title-only” bills the public cannot scrutinize until significant proposals are dropped late in the legislative process. Billig said Senate Democrats have walked away from title-only bills.
Ensuring public access requires vigilance. All four legislative caucuses signed off on the late, shadowy introduction of a toxic bill in 2018 that would have shielded Legislature records from public view. A massive public outcry and a veto stopped this blow against transparency. Many of those same lawmakers still hold office. .
Members of the public deserve to have every issue, especially those with sweeping impact like taxation, education and transportation, discussed in broad daylight. TVW, the state’s version of CSPAN, said it has the technology to manage 15 live events at once and will show every committee meeting and floor session to the public. This year, TVW founder Denny Heck will be presiding over the Senate for the first time as lieutenant governor.
That should help. But lawmakers should fulfill their obligation to put all public business in full view of their constituents.