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‘Title-only’ bills face landmark court challenge in Washington

Title-only bills will soon be challenged in court. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

During the last legislative session, Washington state lawmakers passed a “title-only” bill imposing a tax on out-of-state banks, and now it’s facing a court challenge spearheaded by former state Attorney General Rob McKenna.

“Title-only” bills basically function like a legislative IOU — lawmakers initially introduce a bill with a title and no text, and then amend it to add the actual provisions later on. For the bill McKenna is challenging in court, it was introduced only as “an act relating to revenue,” with no other details at the time it was first presented.

With two days left in the legislative session, the bill was amended with its provisions. According to McKenna, that goes against the state constitution, which stipulates that bills must be introduced at least 10 days before the end of the session.

McKenna: Title-only bills aren’t what constitutional framers had in mind

“That, pretty clearly in our view, violates the letter and the spirit of this provision of the Constitution, because … people directly affected by bills are supposed to know about them in time,” he told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross.

For this particular bill, McKenna and the plaintiffs challenging the state are arguing that while it was technically introduced with its title well in advance, no one knew what the bill was actually about until the 11th hour.

“Next to no notice give to the public, [there was] barely any time to testify, and legislators didn’t have didn’t have time to ask much about it, except in a quick committee hearing and then on the floor of the House and the floor of Senate,” McKenna described. “It clearly frustrates the purpose of the 10-day rule by not providing enough time for people to weigh in on it, and for legislators to really understand it.”

How a legal challenge to I-976 might play out in court

And while it would certainly be a big deal if the bill gets overturned in court, what truly makes this a landmark case is that this is the first time the “title-only” concept has ever seen its day in court.

“It’s quite interesting, because ‘title-only’ the bills have been around for a while, but no one’s ever actually brought a suit in order to ask a court, ‘What does this mean, and can an empty shell that says it’s a bill count if no one really knows what it’s about?'” McKenna noted. “That’s going to be the question for the court to take up.”

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