A newbie to the ways of the Washington Legislature journeyed there this past week. He’d heard they were slow and bitterly divided, but he found them stampeding in unison like wildebeests.
Gordon Padget is a newbie to the ways of the state Legislature. But he pegged the inner soul of the place after spending just a few hours inside the Capitol’s ornate marble edifices.
“The only emergency there appears to be the covering of their collective backsides,” the Navy retiree summed up.
Padget, 57, went to Olympia this past week to testify on a bill for the first time in his life. Within a few hours of hearing about it he was in his truck fuming all the way from Vancouver to the statehouse.
“I figured there’d be protesters, and the hearing room would be packed to overflowing,” he said when I caught up with him at home the next day.
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Instead, the room was nearly empty. He was one of only five who spoke. The hearing was a mirage anyway, as the bill had already been pulled to the Senate floor for a rush vote. It passed the Senate and House lickety-split Friday, after being introduced only 48 hours before.
“That sure didn’t seem normal,” Padget said.
It is decidedly not. This is a body that spent 30 times that long, with five times as many committee meetings, on a bill to name the official state oyster.
This bill, though, is more urgently desired, at least by lawmakers themselves. It exempts the state Legislature from the Public Records Act, which was passed as a citizens’ initiative decades ago. It basically means many internal communications of lawmakers, between one another and the public, will remain hidden from view.
Why does that matter? The work product of every city, town and government agency is considered to be in the public interest. It’s your work they’re doing. Recent example: Some of the documents in the sex-abuse investigation of former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, as well as the emails and texts of city officials plotting to keep him in office, were uncovered using the same Public Records Act from which the Legislature just excluded itself.
Padget, when he testified, zeroed in on the last page of the 24-page bill. That’s where the backside-covering became truly absurd.
“They declared it all an emergency. ‘This act is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety … and so takes effect immediately,’” Padget read from the bill. “Now come on. There’s a five-alarm fire … over this?”
So much for the partisan divide! We’ve finally found the elixir for bringing Ds and Rs together: Their own self-interest, mixed with a dislike of the nosy press.
Seriously, that legislators picked this as deserving of an emergency is one of the more comical exaggerations in lawmaking history.
The state Supreme Court has been holding lawmakers in contempt since 2015 for failing to support the public schools. That hasn’t been an emergency, but this is?
The federal courts have fined the state millions for the past three years for failing the mentally ill. That’s not an emergency, but this is?
Or take just the last week. A measure to raise the age to buy assault rifles from 18 to 21 languished in a Senate committee, never making it to the floor for a vote — even as senators stampeded like wildebeests to hide their own emails. That gun measure, SB 5444, has no emergency clause in it.
(Side note: Now that everyone from Donald Trump to Republican senators to a local gun-shop owner has come out in favor of raising the age to 21, it means our Democratically controlled state Legislature is inexplicably to the right of the right wing on gun control.)
Anyway, the other thing about emergency clauses is that because they’re intended for real emergencies, like a natural disaster, they can’t be repealed through a referendum vote by the people.
So this new law not only would exempt lawmakers from the Public Records Act. It exempts you from having any say in the matter.
So, Gordon Padget, what did you think of your debut in the hallowed halls of democracy?
“I guess I was expecting it to be more plodding and slow,” he laughed. “But they can sure hurry up when they’re motivated to sneak something through.”