Guest Opinion: Erase the budget secrecy

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On June 26, when the Senate Ways & Means Committee met to pass the 2015-17 budget agreement between the Democratic House and Republican Senate, the title-only bill contained just one sentence: “This act may be known and cited as the state government act.” The substantive language of the agreement was not public beforehand, which wouldn't have mattered anyway as no public testimony was taken.

The agreement was given no House hearing.

It was an incongruously secretive resolution to a budgetary impasse between Democrats and Republicans that had played out in the media for months and compelled a third special session.

The secrecy was especially striking because one issue of the impasse was the insistence of some that state employee collective bargaining be open to the public, despite it being unclear what such openness – and the inevitable posturing – might accomplish. The additional compensation agreed to in this budget constituted $173 million out of $38.2 billion in state spending, or less than 1/200th of the total. State employees had gone years without any pay increase, while being furloughed, laid off and subjected to pay cuts.

When Republicans were in the Legislature’s minority, a frequent complaint was that budget agreements were rushed through without their input, or public forewarning. Having been in the House majority, I was sympathetic. Even in my caucus, when I first experienced a budget’s unveiling, it was clear that not only were changes – in the form of amendments –  unwelcome, but that even a legislator’s questions were met with opprobrium.

To offer an amendment was a race-against-time, with only a few hours to try to modify something cooked up in secret for months. In effect, the average legislator was but flotsam on a storm-tossed sea.

In 2009, I was one of only two Democrats to join 19 House Republicans on a bill to require a 72-hour interval between the public unveiling of an appropriation-related or revenue-related bill and a hearing and vote on it. Amendments would be considered only if publicly available 24 hours beforehand, while striking amendments, the entire replacing of a bill (and usual means of effectuating a budget compromise), would require 48 hours of public notice before any vote.

Surely the necessity of such transparency and openness with the public has only grown since 2009, given the way the media, the voting public’s eyes and ears, has atrophied since then. These days the press tables in the House and Senate chambers, once bustling, are frequently unattended.

Yet, like a fish left in the hot sun, a budget does not prosper from sitting in the light of day for long. Were one to linger on the bars in the front of the House or Senate chambers, its malodorousness would draw flies. Amendments would pile up. Put another way, the people’s will might be exerted. What is left of the media might question the triumphalism that accompanies the final vote.

Instead what happens is that budget agreements are usually passed in the dead of night, when voters are asleep and many legislators are quite sleepy themselves. With dawn’s early light comes the spin fed to the media, heretofore kept like mushrooms in the dark. How is this opaque process healthy for our democracy?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Brendan Williams

Brendan Williams

Olympia attorney Brendan Williams was a Washington state representative from 2005-11.