For the second straight year, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has recommended eclipsing the Sunshine Committee as part of an overall effort to close the budget gap. The committee was formed a mere two years ago to study and make recommendations on the more than 300 exemptions that the state Legislature has adopted since voters overwhelmingly approved the Public Records Act in 1972.
Last week, Gregoire eliminated 17 boards and commissions under her supervision and recommended that lawmakers zap 78 more and consolidate some agencies. Cost-cutting is essential, but Sunshine Committee spending is hardly a budget buster – its costs are $22,000 per biennium.
We’re also mindful of the governor’s sketchy record on implementing the panel. When it was being formed, she wanted to keep the names of some applicants secret. Irony mavens took note. Then Gregoire named the panel’s chairman, a Seattle attorney who had been embroiled in many battles to shield city of Seattle records from public view. To his credit, Tom Carr has advocated the end to the inexcusable practice of exempting the Legislature from the public records law.
Gregoire says the Legislature will have to pick up the duties of the panel, but that’s a dubious plan. The Legislature wrote the exemptions and has an interest in maintaining many of them.
The Sunshine Committee’s recommendation to end the legislative exemption is instructive. It was made on an 8-1 vote with the lone holdout being a legislator. If the panel is disbanded and its recommendation on the legislative exemption is discarded, lawmakers can continue to correspond with lobbyists without fear of public scrutiny.
It’s this type of special treatment that bolsters public cynicism and erodes confidence.
The governor’s office notes that the panel has forwarded only eight recommendations, but it’s been active for only two years. It operated only one year before she recommended shutting it down. The Legislature had more than three decades to carve out exemptions.
Important work still needs to be done. It just isn’t believable that lawmakers alone are up to the task.
We sympathize with the budget-cutting plight of the governor when she says: “Just like private businesses, state government must make changes to get the most value for our investments while maintaining the highest level of customer service.”
But unlike business, government shouldn’t operate in the dark.