With the convergence of a resurging pandemic and advances in communications technology, the Legislature is wise to plan a largely remote 2021 session. But exactly how the Legislature confronts its duty must play out with full transparency.
The work of writing a budget, responding to COVID-19 and reforming law enforcement is too important to happen without public attention.
That’s no small challenge for a 105-day session in which the public likely won’t be allowed to set foot inside the Legislative Building or committee hearings elsewhere on Olympia’s Capitol Campus. Lawmakers must use technology to conduct their business openly and provide true accountability.
Done right, the electronic legislative session can increase openness. Online interactions can create public records that backroom conversations and hallway encounters do not.
“A lot of those quick conversations we were having in the hallway are going to be text messages, and those will be a public record,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, acknowledged.
But there is plenty of room for lawmakers to work remotely without leaving fingerprints. For example, recordings of video meetings can be disabled on videoconference software, including Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Personal phones and email accounts can furtively communicate official messages. Even in unrecorded conferences, legislators in both chambers should be required to maintain as public records the identities of everyone they met with remotely just as their appointment calendars and emails are public.
When the legislative session starts Jan. 11, lawmakers expect technology dependency to mean bills advance more slowly than usual. Billig and House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said they plan to prioritize their limited time on a shortlist of subjects: pandemic response, economic recovery, child care, health care, police accountability, climate change, transportation and education.
Those topics could reasonably expand if urgent issues arise. But constituents must hold lawmakers accountable if the rules bend to waste precious time on pet issues. This is not the year to give Washington more custom license plates or official state organisms, nor to waste time on “message” bills with little chance of serious consideration. The focus on massive issues while working remotely must also include tenacious efforts to solicit bipartisan and public input to keep flawed bills from sailing into law.
“Let’s make the system as rigorous and participatory as possible,” Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy and floor leader for the minority caucus, told the editorial board.
Lawmakers must not rely on long-standing bad habits, such as trying to end-run deadlines by relying on “title-only” bills as in years past. These empty filings help ram through laws without proper public opportunity to know what’s coming. Even if the glacial pace of remote lawmaking makes 2021’s deadlines to move legislation a severe challenge, the public has a right to understand what’s up for debate.
As House Minority Leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, told the editorial board, hustling bills through the process with scant public opportunity to inspect the text undercuts public confidence in governmental legitimacy.
“Title-only is a terrible solution,” Wilcox said.
The demands of COVID-19 safety have produced a significant improvement already: remote testimony to legislative committees — used only occasionally in the past — will be the standard, expanding access to power to voices across the state.
Citizens should remember that, in the 2018 session, legislators of both parties rushed to pass a shameful bill to exempt their own records from public-disclosure laws. The resultant public outcry persuaded Gov. Jay Inslee to veto the bill.
Most of those same lawmakers still hold power. They must show they have learned from that debacle that the public will not stand for being shut out of seeing what goes on in Olympia.
The Legislature should seize upon this crisis as an opportunity to do even more to bring its important work further out of the shadows for everyone in Washington.