In the final hours before the end of the 2019 legislative session, Democrats in Olympia rammed through a tax increase on big banks. They used a parliamentary gimmick called a “title-only bill” to bypass the state constitution and cut the public out of the process.
Here’s how it works. At least a couple of weeks before the end of the session, lawmakers file a bunch of title-only bills on different topics. This year there were about two dozen. Each one has a generic title and one sentence body like, “The legislature intends to enact legislation concerning tax revenue.” Then, if lawmakers decide to rush something through at the end of the session, they can cut that sentence and replace it whatever they want.
At least lawmakers are transparent about their secrecy. They define “title-only bill” in their legislative glossary and post a list of the ones for the session online.
This game gets around Article 2, Section 36 of the Washington State Constitution, which says that any bill must be introduced at least 10 days before the end of the session. A two-thirds vote can override that requirement.
Democrats didn’t have two-thirds support for their new bank tax, so they used title-only bill HB 2167, which emerged fully baked from behind closed doors. It targets out-of-state banks and would nearly double the business and occupation tax on those with at least $1 billion in profits worldwide. That would generate about $130 million for the state in the next biennium.
Democrats even blindsided their own banking experts. Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, chairs the Senate Banking Committee. “I can 100% guarantee to every person in this body that not at one point has this committee looked at this issue that was presented on Friday — out of the blue, from nowhere — in any way, shape or form,” Mullet said before the vote.
He also warned that the tax is likely unconstitutional, but he couldn’t get a formal legal analysis in time because the state attorney general’s office was closed for the weekend.
In Oregon, a similar (but not identical) process allows lawmakers to “gut and stuff” a bill. That colorful language, which evokes images of blood and viscera spilled on the Capitol floor, leaves no doubt what’s really going on.
A few years ago, Washington lawmakers considered a bill to ban title-only bills and other tricks lawmakers use to push through controversial laws. It went nowhere. They ought to try again next year. If something really is so important that it merits a rush-job with no public input, then there ought to be two-thirds support, just like the state constitution says.
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