Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center explains why he believes Title-only bills aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on
Washington Policy Center
The 2023 Legislative Session may start off on the right foot for government transparency if the new Senate Rules are adopted. An amendment to Senate Rule 56 would effectively ban title-only bills, potentially ending the prior legislative games played to circumvent the bill transparency requirements guaranteed by Article 2, Section 36 of the state constitution: Here is some of the new language proposed by Sen. Pedersen and Sen. Short for Senate Rule 56:
“The introduction of title-only bills is prohibited. For the purposes of this subsection, a title-only bill is a bill containing a title or short summary of the intended subject matter, without laying forth the full changes intended to any act or sections of law.”
A similar title-only bill ban, however, is not currently in the proposed House Rules.
Title-only bills are essentially blank pieces of paper that provide a placeholder for action later in the legislative session. Not only are title-only bills not the norm across the country, they basically exist to circumvent Washington’s state constitutional protection for transparency on new bills introduced in the last 10 days of session.
According to Article 2, Section 36 of the state constitution:
“No bill shall be considered in either house unless the time of its introduction shall have been at least ten days before the final adjournment of the legislature, unless the legislature shall otherwise direct by a vote of two-thirds of all the members elected to each house, said vote to be taken by yeas and nays and entered upon the journal, or unless the same be at a special session.”
To get around this constitutional restriction in the last ten days of session, lawmakers use blank, title-only bills, then place the real text of legislation in at a later time without having to secure the two-thirds vote required if the bill were introduced after the constitutional cutoff period.
Is the practice of introducing title-only bills prevalent across the country? No.
According to Bruce Feustel of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL):
“Most states I am familiar with do not allow title-only bills for legislative consideration, generally under the reasoning that you need to know the details of a bill to make an informed decision about how to vote on it and even where to refer it.”
As noted previously by the state’s editorial pages:
- Tri-City Herald: “For years state legislators have been allowed to file title-only bills in order to get around transparency rules. It is an appalling practice, and it needs to end.”
- Everett Herald: “Legislation that starts as a title-only bill, however, can become a problem in the waning days of a legislative session, as was the case with HB 2167 . . . The legislation had about 55 hours of vetting that included quickly called testimony in hearings, limited floor debate and scant opportunity for the public to comment on whether the tax increase on banks would be a good idea.”
- Walla Walla Union Bulletin (reprinted in Yakima Herald Republic): “Title-only bills are essentially a scam that circumvents the state constitution, which mandates all pieces of legislation must be introduced at least 10 days before the end of a legislative session so the public has time to be heard before it is approved into law.”
We previously worked with former State Auditor Brian Sonntag and former Attorney General Rob McKenna on language to help stop the abuse of public process and increase legislative transparency. Those recommendations are reflected in a bill introduced in 2014. That bill, however, never received a public hearing.
Here is what that proposed legislative transparency would do:
- All bills, substitutes and strikers must be publicly available for at least 72 hours before legislative action;
- no bill can go directly to the floor – must first have public hearing;
- bans title-only bills;
- prohibits committees from caucusing behind closed doors to decide how to vote; and
- requires bills must be available in final form for at least 24hrs before final passage.
Title-only bills aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Though not a full statutory change, the proposed change to Senate Rule 56 should effectively prohibit title-only bills (at least in the Senate). The House should adopt a similar prohibition on title-only bills. Prohibiting the use of blank bills would respect the right of Washingtonians to fully engage in the public debate during session and honor the legislative transparency requirements promised by Article 2, Section 36 of the state constitution.
Jason Mercier is the director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center.
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