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Fri., March 7, 2014, midnight

Editorial: Legislature needs to get state records mess solved

The digital age has not wiped out paper, and the overflowing records center and archives in Olympia are proof.

Unless the Legislature gives the Secretary of State’s Office some relief, the representatives and senators may have to bring home a few boxes of documents when the session ends later this month.

It would serve them right.

Despite warnings going back several years, lawmakers have not authorized construction of a facility that could handle the waves of records churned out by state government every day. The Legislature in 2007 approved a $115 million heritage center that was to include the state library and archives, but the recession stalled that effort, now dead.

Lawmakers have also repeatedly swept the money out of the account that was to pay for the center, and redirected the funds into the state’s general fund. The money comes from a $1 document filing fee.

Now, the archives and record center are completely filled, and truckloads are being hauled to regional repositories, some of which are having capacity issues of their own. The regional facilities, like the one at Eastern Washington University, hold documents for county and local governments.

The archives store the most important papers from the governor, Legislature and Supreme Court in a Cold War-era bunker on the Capitol campus. Only about 2 percent of all documents are held there for relatively easy access by historians, for example, with the expectation they will be kept forever.

The real crunch is at the records center, where 910 million boxed papers are stacked three stories high in a 47,000-square-foot building. There are inmate mug shots, state hospital records, and files of attorney general litigation, some of which must be retained as long as 90 years. When it can be shredded and dumped, it is, but the incoming material far exceeds the outdated even as more records become electronic. Hence, the space crunch.

But, depending on the outcome of budget conferences, help may be on the way.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman has asked for about $900,000 to lease space and install shelving for records center expansion, and $250,000 for study of a new archives and library building less ambitious than her predecessor’s proposal. Her office already has some of those funds, but needs legislative authorization to spend them.

The Senate and House budgets are accommodating. But like much else in Olympia this year, the real showdown comes next year. It will not take much accounting magic to get lawmakers out of town this month but, barring an economic miracle, the state will be more than $1 billion short of meeting state Supreme Court demands that K-12 education be fully funded.

Money for the past becomes a low priority when the future demands attention. Digitizing may eventually become the solution. Unfortunately, the overbuilt State Data Center is not an economical option.

The past will be with us until shredders rule the world. Get the study done, and don’t put it on the shelf. There’s no space.

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