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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Technology cost part of transparent government

The governor’s budget bears good tidings for the folks wanting to sway political outcomes without drawing too much attention, and bad news for those who want a better system for tracking government influence.

The Public Disclosure Commission has long struggled to keep pace technologically, and budget cuts in recent years haven’t helped. But more cuts are on the way, under the budget proposal submitted by Gov. Jay Inslee. The agency would take a 2 percent hit over the 2015-17 biennium, which works out to three fewer employees, according to the Olympian newspaper.

That leaves less than 17 full-time workers to handle the increasing demands from the Legislature and the public for oversight.

The PDC was willing to absorb the staffing reduction in exchange for $200,000 to upgrade the technology used for lobbyist and candidate reports. As is, the system is so clunky that some lobbyists have reverted to filing paper reports. The governor’s budget does include $10,000 to upgrade the phone system and other money to address some administrative needs, but it’s not nearly enough to meet the challenge.

“It would cause us to fall significantly further behind in our ability to collect and share information that the public increasingly demands to know about,” PDC Executive Director Andrea McNamara Doyle told the Olympian.

The Legislature could increase the budget, and it should, especially if it goes ahead with a plan to limit the number of meals lawmakers can have at lobbyists’ expense. There’s little point in increasing the reporting requirements when the current technology is difficult to use. At present, connecting lobbyist activity to legislators takes a lot of time and effort. The PDC requested the $200,000 to make that an easy online search.

State lobbyists run up a lot of expenses – $52 million in 2012 – and a law passed in 1995 required them to report this spending. But unlike the database for campaign contributions, which is sortable and searchable, the system for lobbyists is relatively primitive. Even the most conscientious lobbyists can struggle to file the reports, and the PDC hasn’t been given the staffing to regularly audit these filings.

Any budget request, of course, runs up against the massive outlays required of the McCleary mandate on basic education funding. The governor’s office notes that the PDC’s technology request was one of 120 that it received. Plus, the governor needed to find more than $200 million in cuts to make the budget balance.

All fair points that will be repeated ad nauseam when the Legislature convenes. But we aren’t convinced the other requests match the public’s priority for see-through government.

The word “transparency” is on the lips of virtually every candidate and officeholder because the public places great value on that, for a very good reason.

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