Spokane Journal of Business

Commentary

Legislature should strive to increase transparency

The Washington state Legislature needs to do more to increase transparency and give its constituents more opportunity to be involved in the legislative process.

The need for greater transparency is especially acute for those of us who are 320-some miles away from the state capitol building in Olympia. Staying abreast of the latest developments, especially in the waning days of a legislative session, is difficult at best. Oftentimes, a new tax or regulation is approved before there’s time for anybody other than a lobbyist to weigh in. That should change. Our elected officials should want that to change.

Legislators made one valuable improvement with the addition of remote testimony during the most recent session. In a measure championed by Spokane’s Andy Billig, the state senate majority leader, and Sen. Mike Padden, of Spokane Valley, remote testimony gives residents an opportunity to weigh in on public hearings via video conferencing technology. People in Spokane used the new technology frequently in the session that recently ended, and the hope is it becomes a prevalent method of participating in the legislative process. 

Conservative think tank Washington Policy Center, an unlikely ally for Billig, recognized him, Padden, and others for making remote testimony an option, and they deserve to be lauded.

But more can and should be done.

As the Associated Press reported in late April, the Legislature got crossways with open-government advocates when the Senate and House announced toward the end of the session that they had reached an agreement on a two-year state budget, one rife with tax increases, but they wouldn’t make public the details of the budget until it was finalized.

Billig told the AP at that time that he’d look at ways to make the process more efficient, which hopefully leads to greater transparency. We encourage him to do just that.

Then there’s the subject of title-only bills, including one in the last couple of days of the session that increases taxes on certain banks. Those affected by the tax hike contend they were only given 3 1/2 hours to respond. Now, a group of legislators are calling for legislative transparency reform that would examine this process, which appears to circumvent the state Constitution. Those 11th-hour shenanigans should never be allowed to happen again.

The Legislature had an opportunity to provide greater access to state government with a $750,000 budget increase to TVW, the state’s public affairs network, that would have expanded television coverage to three more meeting rooms that a number of agencies use regularly. With that expansion, interested parties would have had access to monthly meetings of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission and six meetings a year of the state Transportation Commission, among a number of others.

In light of $8 billion in increased spending for the 2019-21 biennium, it doesn’t seem like a lot to ask for to give voters better access.

The state can do a better job of opening up its process before it’s too late for constituents to weigh in. For those of us so far from Olympia, it’s essential that legislators find ways to do so.