By Don Nelson
Lots of news is generated during a session of the Washington state Legislature, even in a year when the imposition of COVID protocols means the Capitol is mostly empty and the usual personal interactions are for the most part virtual.
This year, the Legislature is setting the biennial budget, with all the machinations and maneuvering about revenues and expenses that go with it. A $59-billion-plus spending plan is beyond the comprehension of all but the most obsessive budget trackers. And yet it is important for us to understand as much as possible about how that massive amount of money is spent, if only to evaluate the priorities. No matter how much is appropriated, it always seems like something worthy has been neglected, or something specious has somehow wound up with a bankroll.
Each year, there are issues that generate more headline attention than others, such as the proposed estate tax that looks likely to gain approval this session. Legislators’ special projects or programs may also merit some ink.
Anyone who has covered the Legislature for a news outlet, or follows the daily tedium of committee meetings and grinding negotiations, understands that the process is deliberate, structured and moves at a glacial pace (until the last few days of frantic action to get things done).
Introduced bills must first be put in front of a subcommittee or committee for hearing and review, a process that is controlled by the majority party — in this case the Democrats. Some bills never see the light of day. Simply introducing a bill doesn’t guarantee that it will ever move out of the hopper and into the system. Some bills are proposed as grandstanding moves by their sponsors, or as favors to certain constituents, and disappear quickly.
Well-intentioned or influentially backed bills may have an easier time of it, and emerge from committee with a recommendation for passage in either the House or Senate. Still, to arrive at the governor’s desk, any bills must earn support in both chambers, whether negotiated or strong-armed through. Until the governor inks the document, it’s still just a proposal.
So how, as a media organization, do we determine what’s newsworthy to our readers from all of that uncertainty? It’s a question we deal with weekly as the session progresses.
I’ve covered legislatures a few times over the decades, and as a government process geek I found it fascinating but sometimes plodding. As a reporter, you are often writing what we call “tick, tock” or “turn of the screw” stories — that is, frequent updates on the prospects of noteworthy pieces of legislation as they advance of the process treadmill. How is a bill doing? Who’s supporting it, who is opposed? What’s the likelihood of advancement? It’s like following a bouncing ball.
Our 12th District legislators are active in a lot of areas and have taken leadership roles to introduce and advance some noteworthy bills, albeit with a necessary eye toward bipartisan acceptance as they are all Republicans. They do a good job of keeping us up to speed and of paying attention to their constituents’ priorities. You may not always agree with their positions, but they are focused on practical issues as opposed to blathering from an ideological hidey-hole. All of them produce regular reports from the current session, with some emphasis on legislation they are sponsoring or have a strong interest in. (Brad, Keith and Mike, I do read them!)
Unfortunately, we often don’t have the space or resources to publish regular updates on specific legislative initiatives, even ones that might have implications for our part of the world. Admittedly, it might encourage increased citizen interest and involvement if we provided more “turn of the screw” coverage.
The choice we typically make is to wait until the session is concluded and we know with a fair degree of certainty what proposals are going to become law, and which aspects of the final budget merit special attention (that includes the capital and transportation budgets, which are separate from the operational budget and are where billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects are funded). For us, the goal is always to localize, to show how the legislation will affect us at the county or town level. Sometimes we can drill down to specifics, other times it’s more speculative.
When the session is completed and the governor gives a good indication of what he will sign (or veto), we’ll review the legislative slate and determine which actions are most meaningful to our readers. We expect it will be a substantial list. The daily drama of legislative give-and-take may be engaging, but for us, examining outcomes and consequences is a better way to use our resources. Our eye is on the finish line.