One of the many bills that died as the clock ran out in the state House yesterday was HB 2872, which in its amended form would have raised the legal gambling age from 18 to 21 at card rooms and mini-casinos, and would have instructed the state Lottery not to market to teens.
It was a simple, straight forward proposal — backed up by science — that garnered broad, bipartisan support in both houses… yet failed to reach the floor in either. In the Senate the bill was blocked by Sen. Margarita Prentice for reasons only she can explain. In the House… well… I’m not exactly sure what happened in the House, but clearly it was not a priority of Frank Chopp and the Democratic leadership, who opted not to give it a vote.
With little or no public opposition from the gambling industry, I had naively expected some version of this bill to pass this session, but the legislative process is a complex one, and thus often both infuriating and disappointing. But perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of the process is that while a bill’s merits are loudly trumpeted by its sponsors at its birth, a bill’s death is most often left shrouded in the mysteries of the caucus. Good bills die without explanation from those responsible (usually, a committee chair,) and it is this lack of transparency that encourages speculation about ulterior motives.
Personally, I have my own suspicions that (gasp) “politics” may have played a role in the bill’s demise — a not unreasonable thing to suspect of politicians — and I have been openly critical of some of the legislator’s motives. And yet, I not only profess a profound belief in the wisdom of our (small “r”) republican form of government, I am also an ardent supporter of the (big “D”) Democrats who control the state Legislature.
So if a legislative booster such as myself can be inspired to voice suspicions, imagine the paranoid fantasies of some of the anti-government folk on the right. The problem as I see it, is that not only does the leadership do a lousy job of explaining their decision making process, they often make no effort whatsoever.
This may have sufficed in the past when it was almost guaranteed that most bills would die with little if any public scrutiny, for the Olympia press corps operates under time and column-inch constraints that leaves little room for in depth coverage of any but the most controversial or dramatic bills. But times have changed, and bloggers such as myself do not have the same constraints, nor follow the same journalistic rules. Lacking the time, cooperation or even the inclination to conduct a thorough interview, I am not above running with analysis, speculation, and opinion, rather than pure factual reporting. (As if such a beast actually exists.)
The point is, as chair of the Ways & Means Committee, the senate rules give Sen. Prentice the prerogative to kill nearly any bill, without explanation or public comment. But she does so at her own risk, for if she and her colleagues refuse to reveal the back room dealings and other machinations behind their legislative triage, then bloggers like me can’t help but fill the void with speculation. And increasingly the most impassioned and active voters on both sides of the political spectrum are getting their news from bloggers like me and our evil-twin counterparts on the right.
Professional initiative sponsor and renowned horse’s ass Tim Eyman likes to justify his own existence by highlighting real or imagined examples of legislative arrogance, and in truth, many of our legislators are arrogant… even some of those I admire most. After all, it takes a certain amount of arrogance just to run for public office.
But if our legislators want to instill public trust and confidence in the legislative process, they must start making this process more transparent. “Because I know better,” “because I can,” and just plain “because” may be all that is needed to exercise power in the halls of the Capitol, but it is hard to blame voters for resorting to the initiative process when these are the only explanations offered the public.
The gambling age bill died in the Senate Ways & Means Committee without a vote, and without explanation; the House version made it through all its committees, but was allowed to die without a floor vote as the clock ran out. I want to know why, and I shouldn’t have to personally ask Frank Chopp or Margarita Prentice for an explanation.
I’m not saying it’s easy, but the legislative leadership needs to do a better and more proactive job of communicating its priorities and explaining its decision making process. Bills like HB 2872 die for a reason, and the public deserves to know the reason why. If the leadership can’t adequately explain its decisions, don’t blame us bloggers for attempting to fill the void.