Wednesday’s weather provided a suitable backdrop for state lawmakers intent on passing a secrecy bill. Clouds hung low over Olympia, obscuring any sunshine, and snow statewide prevented people from attending a hearing about it held by the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee.
A year ago, the Legislature passed a bill exempting itself from the Public Records Act. Washingtonians responded with justified outrage, inundating the governor’s office with letters of opposition. Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed that bill, and lawmakers agreed to spend some time carefully studying the issue to identify a better approach.
Now they have Senate Bill 5784. It’s better than last year’s bill, but only barely. If it becomes law, the Legislature could keep all sorts of secrets from the public.
For example, lawmakers would not have to disclose the identities of people and groups that lobby them but aren’t registered lobbyists or the employers of registered lobbyists.
Many people and groups send emails and letters to their elected officials. The big fish – the heads of public employees’ unions and presidents of major companies – will be identified because they hire lobbyists. But other powerful political players could skirt identification. Think local business owners and single-issue activist groups that don’t meet the official definition of a lobbyist.
Lawmakers who cater to those groups at the expense of regular constituents mustn’t be allowed to remain in the shadows. It’s critically important that voters be able to see who is asking lawmakers to do what so that they can hold their elected officials accountable.
Democracy is a public process, and the participants should have the courage to be identified. That’s why the names of people who sign ballot petitions are public. The names of people who seek to influence lawmakers should be too.
This year’s bill also would allow lawmakers to conceal draft bills that show how thinking has evolved on an issue, ethics and sexual harassment investigative materials, and negotiations between lawmakers over bills.
In other words, a lot of the stuff that could help the public better understand the legislative process, especially the early phases of it, and things that might embarrass a lawmaker short of a formal ethics violation would remain under wraps.
Lawmakers could even keep otherwise public records locked up during the legislative session if officials decide they are too busy to bother answering a request. The people would find out after it’s too late to do anything about it.
Finally, several technical concerns about the wording of the bill should give lawmakers pause.
Legislative arrogance underlies all of this. Lawmakers have convinced themselves that they are so special that the rules that apply to most other elected officials in the state should not apply to them. (The rules are different for judges for technical reasons.)
When voters approved the Public Records Act more than 40 years ago, they created a transparency framework meant to cover government agencies and to be interpreted liberally. That means government officeholders and departments from the governor to the state Arts Commission to the Spokane City Council are subject to the law, and there is a presumption that records are public.
That’s not to say that everything needs to be public. Narrowly written exemptions are appropriate in some sensitive cases. Indeed, over the decades, lawmakers have written many such exemptions, some better than others.
The current bill identifies a few more cases that might warrant such special consideration. For example, overly broad records requests are a bane for any agency. Provisions to encourage people to make their requests more precise and discourage repetitive or otherwise harassing requests would be fine. Likewise, reasonable measures to protect victims of harassment so that they can report it safely make sense.
Fine-tuning existing exemptions that apply across the government should be the path forward, not wholesale exclusion for one branch of government and a reversal of the presumption of openness on which the Public Records Act is built.
If lawmakers approve this bill, they will move the public process further into the shadows and will demonstrate they learned nothing from last year’s debacle. Gov. Inslee, keep your veto pen handy.
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