After apologizing for rushing though a controversial public-records bill in two days, state lawmakers appear to be falling back on old habits. They’re expected to release a budget deal a day before adjourning, giving the public little time to weigh in.
Just last week, thousands of Washington citizens rose up and said no to the Legislature ramming through important, controversial legislation over a two-day period.
They successfully pushed Gov. Jay Inslee to veto Senate Bill 6617, a fast-tracked bill that would have allowed state lawmakers to skirt government transparency rules.
Yet just a few days later, state lawmakers appear to be falling back on old habits. Members of the public will have maybe 24 hours to review the final version of the state’s 2018 budget, which lawmakers negotiated behind closed doors and had yet to release Wednesday afternoon, one day before they were scheduled to adjourn.
This isn’t an unusual timeline for passing a final budget out of the Legislature. But that’s exactly the problem.
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The legislative session ends Thursday, leaving little time for public input at this point. The final bill is expected to combine elements from earlier House and Senate budget proposals. Once the deal is already struck between the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, leaders will allow few, if any, amendments to the spending bill before lawmakers are expected to pass it and go home.
The secretive nature of the budget is already proving disastrous. Late Tuesday, Democrats introduced a new plan to divert $935 million in 2019 property-tax collections to an education fund, attempting to sidestep a requirement that they put most of that money in the state’s constitutionally protected rainy-day account. Normally, tapping this emergency fund would require a 60-percent majority vote, meaning several Republicans would have to agree. Naturally, GOP leaders objected to Democrats’ late-game maneuver that they said cuts them out of the process and could put the state on less stable financial footing going forward. State Treasurer Duane Davidson also raised an alarm.
This is an idea that should have been vetted in public. Yet it never received as much as a public hearing, contributing to a last-minute political meltdown that could have been avoided.
This year’s speedy timeline is especially ironic given that some of the things lawmakers are fixing in this year’s budget are mistakes they made when rushing through the process the last time around.
Last year, legislative leaders introduced and passed a two-year budget over the course of about 12 hours while rushing to avert a partial shutdown of state government.
That two-year spending plan involved a landmark overhaul of the state’s education system, a complicated and messy endeavor that many school districts later said created unforeseen consequences for their budgets.
This may be the way Washington’s government has often worked, but it shouldn’t be. Members of the public, along with businesses and state agencies, need time to digest complicated legislation and offer substantive feedback. This process of holding public hearings and debating bills at length helps avoid oversights that can lead to problems down the road.
Even more surprises may pop up by Thursday night’s adjournment. Lawmakers have introduced at least two dozen “title-only” bills, blank placeholders that allow lawmakers to slap together legislation at the last minute without running up against a constitutional provision that makes it harder to pass bills introduced during the final days of a session.
All this workaround does is keep the public in the dark.
If lawmakers have learned anything from this year’s public-records debacle and last year’s rushed budget, it should be that listening to the public is a key part of their job. They should take that lesson to heart and stop cutting citizens out of the process by leaving some of their most important work until the last minute.