Washington Legislature Should Smell Some Strong Starbucks

Updated Feb. 10, 2010 3:15 p.m.

With December, 2009 tax-collection revenue up 3.6 percent, the Washington State Legislature is getting some good news as it debates solutions to the anticipated nearly $2.7 billion budget shortfall. But lawmakers are flunking the transparency test during this legislative session.

As the adage goes, they need to wake up and smell the coffee. They need a good, strong venti-size cup of Starbucks. Make it two.

In a recent column, “Government’s Reliance on Huge Tax Increases Reaches Absurdity,” I wrote that a proposed state of Washington sin tax – a 500 percent tax increase – was best described as punitive, full of hypocrisy and discriminatory. That’s because the state operates venues in both gambling and liquor.

But state lawmakers are not done. With seemingly unlimited chicanery, the Legislature is violating the will of voters in a variety of ways in the current session.

Literally, a ghost tax bill, SB 6853, was introduced. It had zero text. Yes, it was blank. It appears it will violate the state principle that requires five days notice of transparency – public notification – before passage.

“This title only bill…subject to a public hearing and received executive action even though there are no details in the bill,” says Jason Mercier who is director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center.

“This means anything related to the bill title can be added on the Senate floor without ever receiving public scrutiny or comment,” he explains. 

Mr. Mercier sheds more light on the disturbing, ongoing chicanery.

“…the Legislature is considering repeal of the state’s Sunshine Committee while failing to act on the committee’s recommendation that the Legislature’s double standard exempting lawmakers from the state’s public records law be repealed,” he says.

You might recall a batch of incriminating legislative/executive branch e-mails as part of a shell game to circumvent spending limits led to a Washington Supreme Court case just a few years ago.

Well now, lawmakers have killed a transparency bill: HB 2872: Establishing a period of public and legislative review of appropriations legislation. “This bipartisan bill would have created a 72-hour public review period before budget bills could be voted on,” says Mr. Mercier. “The bill received a public hearing and was originally scheduled for executive action but was never voted on in committee. The bill is now dead.”

Lawmakers also want to suspend Initiative 960. That’s the voter-passed initiative, the Taxpayer Protection Act. SB 6843: Preserving essential public services by temporarily suspending the two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases.

These unsavory legislative actions undermine the intent of the majority of Washington voters. Further, it’s another violation of the economic freedom and political freedom of Washingtonians.

See the videos of lawmakers in action for yourself.  

Meantime, lawmakers are ignoring all kinds productive ways to streamline. It’s clear they don’t have a revenue problem. They have spending and transparency problems.

Frankly, it will be interesting to see how voters react. In 1993, the Legislature pulled similar stunts and the following year saw a high volume of voter angst at the polls. It was a nationwide trend, too, in the 1994 landslide defeats for countless officeholders.

Following widespread protests over massive business-tax increases in 1993, the Washington State Association of County Assessors decided to take action. I was invited by a client – the-then Kitsap County Assessor and a self-described conservative Democrat – in late 1994 to advise the 60 assessors on media strategies.  As a result, the assessors persuaded state lawmakers to reduce property taxes by 4.7 percent in the ensuing 1995 session.

Perhaps they consumed enough coffee that year.

From the Coach’s Corner, if you agree, voice your opinion to legislators.

Seattle business consultant Terry Corbell provides high-performance management services and strategies.