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Washington’s Troublesome Blank Bills

4 min readBy: Liz Malm

There’s a quirky way to introduce legislation in the Washington State legislature and that’s via something called a “title-only bill.” A title-only bill is exactly what it sounds like—a piece of legislation that has a vague title but no body. There are currently 26 title-only bills filed in the legislature, all introduced by Representative Ross Hunter (D–District 48), Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, and Senator Andy Hill (R–District 45), Chair of the Senate Ways and Means CommitteeThe Committee on Ways and Means, more commonly referred to as the House Ways and Means Committee, is one of 29 U.S. House of Representative committees and is the chief tax-writing committee in the U.S. The House Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over all bills relating to taxes and other revenue generation, as well as spending programs like Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance, among others. . Descriptions of the legislation are below:

  • “An act relating to education,”
  • “An act relating to fiscal matters,”
  • “An act relating to health care,”
  • “An act relating to human services,”
  • “An act relating to natural resources,”
  • “An act relating to revenue,” and
  • “An act relating to state government.”

Lawmakers argue that this is a way for them to beat strict legislative deadlines. For example, if a bill’s language isn’t quite right and introduction deadlines are looming, a legislator can introduce a title-only bill to act as a placeholder until the final bill is complete.

The only other states for which I could find reference to similar practices are North Carolina and California. A Raleigh, NC article from 1989 pointed out that “[i]n the harried world of the state legislator, these blank or ‘dummy’ bills are aces in the hole. They allow a legislator to meet deadlines—and worry about the details later.” The piece also argues that “[i]t leaves open an opportunity if something pops up.” The author agreed that “the method might theoretically be abused by lawmakers wishing to hide a bill’s purpose until it was taken up in committee,” but said that this was unlikely.

A related practice also seems to occur in California. A blog post last year on the Los Angeles Times website described a situation where the legislature enacted 78 blank budget bills. The legislators argue it allows the budget process to be expedited. Politically, it’s no surprise that opposite parties accuse one another of using the tactic to sneak bills through the chamber.

From what I can tell, there hasn’t been any real foul play in Washington because of this practice, but the potential is certainly there. There has been concern that the public within the state isn’t given enough notice on when legislation will be discussed. This, in combination with the title-only bill practice, could be problematic. The Washington Policy Center (WPC) frequently reports on the issue. I stumbled upon a particularly interesting description of events that occurred during the 2009-2010 legislative session. Senate Bill 6853 was a title-only bill that was discussed in committee—before it even had any text. As described by WPC:

On the same day [of introduction] it was subject to a public hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee (after waiving Rule 45) and was also adopted by the Committee. [Author’s note: Senate Rule 45 says that at least five days of notice are required for all public hearings and that a draft of the legislation must be made available to the public at least 24 hours in advance.] The bill contained no text, just a blank page below the printed title. It was not until the bill had already been passed to the Rules Committee for second reading that any actual bill text was posted on the Legislature’s website. In fact, it was not until a [later] work session…that the bill text was made available in a public meeting. Even then, that text was different than the one posted online while the bill sat in the Rules Committee…. Although SB 6853 was not ultimately adopted by the Legislature, many of the provisions from the…hearing were incorporated in the [final] budget bill…. This means the public was never allowed to comment on the policies adopted.

It seems that title-only bills are a way for legislators to get around deadlines, but I would argue that they have the potential to be used for less honorable reasons. Transparency and public trust in the legislative process is of the utmost importance, and this procedural move violates both. Lawmakers should be required to follow the rules, even if it is difficult to do so.

More on Washington here. More on North Carolina here. More on California here.

Follow Liz on Twitter @elizabeth_malm.