Flanked by a bipartisan group of legislators, Attorney General Bob Ferguson unveiled a 2014 legislative agenda focused on veterans, open government, safer communities and protections for consumers against businesses who do not play by the rules.
“This bipartisan legislative package will strengthen consumer protections, improve public safety, assist veterans and increase transparency in government,” Ferguson said.
Enforcing the rights of our veterans and servicemembers
Military servicemembers called to active duty enjoy fewer protections under state law than they do under federal law. This means that a servicemember whose active duty orders are signed by the governor has fewer protections than one whose orders are signed by the president.
The Attorney General’s Office will request the Legislature pass additional protections under the state’s Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act to match those provided by the federal Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act. The office is also requesting the authority to enforce violations of this statute.
Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, 33rd Legislative District, is prime sponsor of the House bill and serves as vice chair on the Joint Legislative Committee on Veterans and Military Affairs.
“These are the men and women who put their lives at risk in defense of our nation and our freedom, the least we can do is protect their rights,” Orwall said. “This legislation gives us the opportunity to ensure all military personnel can carry out their jobs without having to worry about their families’ wellbeing and the lives they have built for themselves falling apart during their tour of duty.”
Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, 44th Legislative District, is a member of the Washington Army National Guard and prime sponsor of the Senate bill.
“As a member of the Washington Army National Guard, I understand the pressures we face when called to active duty by our governor,” Hobbs said. “These simple changes will harmonize state and federal law so all active duty military and their families share the same rights and protections.”
With approximately 640,000 veteran residents, Washington state has the 12th largest veteran population in the United States. When combined with the over 62,000 active duty military personnel and members of the National Guard and Reserve, veterans and military personnel account for more than 10 percent of Washington’s total population.
Consumer protection attorneys’ fees
Washington is the only state in the nation that requires the Attorney General’s Office Consumer Protection Division to pay attorneys’ fees when it loses a consumer protection case—even if there is no finding that the suit was frivolous.
In contrast, Washington law does protect private plaintiffs who sue businesses under the Consumer Protection Act and lose. Unlike the state, these private attorneys are not forced to pay attorney’s fees in cases where they do not prevail.
Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, 27th Legislative District, is prime sponsor of the Senate bill.
“The Washington Attorney General’s Office does great work to protect consumers, but they should not have to worry about risking state tax dollars when they stand up to big special interests with deep pockets for expensive attorneys,” Darneille said. “This is common-sense legislation to better protect consumers.”
Rep. Jay Rodne, R-Issaquah, 5th Legislative District, is an attorney and prime sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives.
“A strong consumer protection system deters bad behavior in the business marketplace and improves that marketplace for businesses and consumers,” Rodne said. “It’s fair and responsible to make Washington law consistent with the laws of other states.”
Reforming the sexually violent predator law
Washington’s sexually violent predator (SVP) law allows the state to civilly commit to a secure facility sexually violent predators who, because of a mental abnormality and/or personality disorder, are proven likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence if not confined.
The Attorney General’s Office SVP Unit is responsible for prosecuting sex predator cases for 38 of Washington’s 39 counties (King County being the exception).
Only 37 percent of sexually violent predators choose to participate in treatment. A growing number refuse to participate in annual reviews of their psychiatric state.
The Attorney General’s Office is seeking legislation to:
- Require SVPs participate in their annual review before the state appoint an expert to testify on their behalf; and
- Define treatment.
Rep. Susan Fagan, R-Pullman, heard from residents in her district who were frustrated that a sexually violent predator was released from his civil commitment without participating in treatment and without undergoing a state psychiatric evaluation because he refused to participate.
This reduced the state’s ability to make a strong recommendation as to whether or not he met the definition of an SVP. At the same time, the state is required to pay for offenders to hire their own independent evaluators.
“When the state is arguing before a judge or jury as to whether or not a sex offender should continue to be confined as a sexually violent predator, it’s only fair to allow them to use all the tools available,” Fagan said. “This legislation says that if a sexually violent predator wants the state to pay for an independent expert, they must participate in the most recent review by the state’s expert.”
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane, 4th Legislative District, is prime sponsor of this measure in the Senate.
“These changes will remedy some imbalances in the SVP civil commitment process and allow the Attorney General’s Office and King County to better protect our communities from sexually violent predators who otherwise would be unconfined,” Padden said.
The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and Washington Coalition of Crime Victim Advocates are also supporting the legislation.
Open government training
In 2012, the State Auditor found more than 250 “open government-related issues” among local governments, including:
- Providing inadequate notice for special meetings;
- Failing to consistently record minutes; and
- Reaching informal agreements on official matters via email rather than in an open public meeting.
Ferguson is requesting legislation to require state and local officials subject to the public records act to complete training. The legislation also requires public records and records management staff to complete training.
Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, 47th Legislative District, is the prime sponsor of the Senate bill.
“A strong training program will help both the public and government officials and their staff,” Fain said. “Government officials and staff will learn best practices to improve their efforts to serve the public—and the public will enjoy greater transparency and access to government.”
Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, 46th Legislative District, is the prime sponsor of the House bill. He ran similar legislation in the 2013 legislative session. He commended the Attorney General for supporting this legislation.
“Attorney General Ferguson has worked hard to develop legislation to provide training for public officials on their fundamental duty to conduct the public’s business in the open,” Pollet said. “His work demonstrates a strong commitment to open and transparent government. It provides simple training needed by public officials to ensure they understand their meetings must be open and their records for conducting public business are public records.
“This bill will also greatly reduce the liability of state and local governments from repeated findings that they did not train their staffs or elected officials in how to respond to public records request,” Pollet said.
The bills will be pre-filed with the Legislature so they will be ready to be heard early in the session.