State lawmakers this year could have agreed to never again use a legislative gimmick that circumvents the Washington Constitution and keeps the public out of the loop. They didn’t.
The gimmick in question is called a “title-only bill.” It’s an empty shell of a bill without substantive content. Lawmakers introduce a bunch of them each session. They serve as placeholders, just in case lawmakers want to get around legislative deadlines later, such as the constitutional requirement in Article 2, Section 36 that all bills must be introduced at least 10 days before the session adjourns.
As long as lawmakers have a suitable title-only bill laying around, they can stuff it with whatever they want in the final days, rushing to pass a law with minimal public oversight and debate. For example, last year, Democrats used a title-only bill to pass a bank tax.
No one should be surprised, of course, that lawmakers skirt transparency. After all, these are the same people who fought tooth and nail not to have to share their public records with the public.
This isn’t a partisan issue. “Title-only bills have been used for decades in the Washington State Legislature, regardless of which party is in power,” Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig said. The Spokane Democrat noted that the use of title-only bills has tapered in recent years under his party’s control and that the Senate changed its rules this session to require that every bill at least receive a hearing before it can move forward.
That’s all true, but less stink still stinks.
Meanwhile, Republicans, now in the minority, have found religion on the issue. They introduced three bills (HB 2190, SB 2042 and SJR 8214) to reform or prohibit title-only bills. Those bills had some bipartisan support, but none received a committee hearing, dooming them for the session.
Which brings us back to that banking tax approved last year with a title-only bill. Bankers filed a lawsuit against it. Part of their case hinged on whether title-only bills violate the constitutional deadline for bills to be introduced.
The state Attorney General’s Office, which is legally required to defend state law, defends the practice and has argued that separation of powers precludes the courts from hearing the case. Disappointingly, a King County judge concurred, dismissing the claim and for now leaving lawmakers the option to slip fast ones into title-only bills.
Title-only bills remain unseemly and duplicitous — yes, perhaps they bend the rules just short of the constitutional breaking point. That’s why a legislative fix is preferable, but Democrats killed that idea.
In Olympia, though, death isn’t necessarily permanent. One ironic option to resurrect reform remains: Just cram it into a title-only bill.