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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: News good, bad on open government front in Olympia

In honor of open government, Sunshine Week starts Sunday, and the forces of darkness and light can claim victories last week in Olympia.

On the dark side, the Senate failed to move a bill that would’ve opened collective bargaining to the public. These negotiations involve some of the largest spending decisions government makes, but under changes made more than 10 years ago, the state placed a veil over the process.

SB 5329 would’ve ended the secret talks by lifting an exemption to the Public Records Act. The exemption blocks the release of records until the Legislature and the governor approve contracts. So the public, which pays for the salaries and benefits negotiated, cannot weigh in until it’s too late. Changes in work conditions, a regular bargaining subject, are also kept under wraps.

Lifting the exemption would allow the public to follow along with the give and take. What are the concerns of workers? Are government negotiators looking out for taxpayers? What issues divide employees and management, and how might they affect the public?

Union representatives say secrecy is needed so both sides can speak frankly, but that’s a tiresome excuse used by employees in all levels of government, including lawmakers, to shield activities from public view. SB 5329 would not block either side from holding strategy sessions, but once they engage each other, it should be considered a public meeting.

Collective bargaining isn’t just a discussion. It’s an act that bears significant consequences for the very people shut out of the process. Other states open the negotiations. Washington should do so again.

On the bright side, the Senate unanimously adopted a campaign finance transparency bill written by Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane.

Under SB 5153, loopholes that allow national groups to spend inside the state without disclosing donors would be closed. These nonprofit “dark money” groups would be subject to the same rules as other political committees. They would have to register with the Public Disclosure Commission once they spent or contributed at least $25,000. Once that threshold is crossed, the groups would be required to list its top 10 donors and/or any contributors who give more than $100,000.

The bill was embraced by all senators, because both political parties have come to understand the damage that dark-money campaigns can inflict.

During the 2013 elections, the Grocery Manufacturers Association spent more than $11 million to defeat Initiative 522 (GMO food labels) while shielding the identity of contributors. A group called Working Washington raised $250,000 in support of the higher minimum wage in Sea-Tac without disclosing names.

Under SB 5153, the public would know who’s trying to influence these elections. Sunshine Week would be the perfect time to turn the bill into law.