Combatting the legislature’s secrecy and surprise ‘public’ hearings

As we wrap up National Sunshine Week, a Wisconsin judge has issued a temporary restraining order against a controversial union reform law on grounds its adoption may have violated the state’s open meetings law.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi issued a temporary restraining order Friday, barring the publication of a controversial new law that would sharply curtail collective bargaining for public employees.

Sumi’s order will prevent Secretary of State Doug La Follette from publishing the law until she can rule on the merits of the case. Dane County Ismael Ozanne is seeking to block the law because he says a legislative committee violated the state’s open meetings law.

Sumi said Ozanne was likely to succeed on the merits.

‘It seems to me the public policy behind effective enforcement of the open meeting  law is so strong that it does outweigh the interest, at least at this time, which may exist in favor of sustaining the validity of the (law),’ she said.”

Unlike in Washington, the Wisconsin Legislature is subject to the state’s open meetings law. Our lawmakers, however, have explicitly exempted themselves from following the same rules they place on local elected officials.

Writing about the problems this causes, here are quotes from Sen. Jim Honeyford’s op-ed in the Seattle Times this morning:

“A troubling trend has emerged in the state Legislature these past few years: a tendency by legislative leaders to hold surprise ‘public’ hearings on bills, hold votes on bills that have no content beyond the titles, and votes on bills the same day they’re introduced.

In other words, some lawmakers have been moving away — not toward — the openness and transparency the public deserves . . .

The 2009 and 2010 legislative sessions were marred by surprise hearings, votes on ‘ghost’ bills and other tactics that prompted responses like a bill this year to require a 24-hour waiting period on fiscal bills before the Legislature acts on them (this bill received a hearing, then promptly died) . . .

Washingtonians deserve better, which means proper notice of the time, location and topic of public hearings. That’s the only way citizens will have a meaningful opportunity to review legislation, understand its effects and communicate with their legislators before votes are taken. And it’s especially true as lawmakers contemplate major policy and budget changes in response to Thursday’s discouraging revenue forecast.

Many committee hearings and votes are left in the 2011 session. I hope as we move forward that all lawmakers will agree that open-government provisions and committee procedures are to be respected and followed, not pushed aside as they have been so many times recently.”

Here is our proposed solution to help improve legislative transparency so that citizens are able to participate in the legislative process in a meaningful way: “Legislative Transparency Act

Perhaps lawmakers in Wisconsin and across the country should consider it as well.

 

Jason Mercier is the director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center. He serves on the Executive Committee of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force and is the private sector chairman of ALEC’s Fiscal Federalism Working Group. He is a contributing editor of the Heartland Institute’s Budget & Tax News, serves on the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and was an advisor to the 2002 Washington State Tax Structure Committee. In June 2010, Governor Gregoire appointed Jason as WPC’s representative on her Fiscal Responsibility and Reform Panel. Jason holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Washington State University.

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