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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Editorial: Washington state lawmakers scramble to keep public in the dark

Rowland Thompson, right, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, testifies during a joint work session of the Senate and House State Government Committees, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. The session was held to discuss a bill filed by lawmakers who want to circumvent a recent court ruling finding them fully subject to the state's public disclosure laws. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

State lawmakers want to create a legislative loophole in Washington’s Public Records Act. While it’s nice to see Democrats and Republicans working together for once, it’s just too bad that their agreement is that the public is the enemy.

As The Spokesman-Review’s Olympia reporter Jim Camden explained Feb. 22, lawmakers could vote on a bill today responding to a court order that the people of Washington are entitled to review legislative records.

In the past, whenever lawmakers received a public records request for, say, emails from lobbyists seeking influence or investigative reports into alleged personal impropriety, they typically punted it to legislative staff. The secretary of the Senate and clerk of the House then usually rejected it.

State news organizations, including The Spokesman-Review, challenged that practice in court and won. Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled that lawmakers are “agencies” within the legal parlance and had illegally withheld records.

“The plain and unambiguous language of the Public Records Act applies to the offices of senators and representatives,” Lanese wrote. It was not a hard decision. The law is clear.

The spirit of the law is even clearer. The Public Records Act exists to empower residents to hold their government accountable. The public doesn’t just deserve to know what is being done in its name; it needs to know so that come Election Day, Washingtonians can cast informed votes.

Without such oversight, Washington returns to an era of deals struck in backrooms. Those rooms might no longer be smoke-filled, but when the door is closed, the public’s interest rarely is served.

Other states get on just fine with legislative public records. The public records laws in Oregon and Idaho, for example, apply to lawmakers.

When most defendants lose in court, they can appeal. If they keep losing, eventually they must accept that the rule of law compels them to do something they might not like.

When lawmakers lose, they can just rewrite the law.

In an appalling display of legislative hubris, lawmakers want to keep their secrets, and they have little interest in what the public thinks.

Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, have co-sponsored Senate Bill 6617 to undo the court order. It would retroactively exempt legislators from the Public Records Act and create a special records law just for lawmakers that helps ensure uncomfortable records never see the light of day. There would not be any meddlesome court oversight, either.

They introduced their bill on Wednesday, and under special legislative rules rushed to a work session less than 24 hours later. A vote could occur as soon as Friday, Feb. 23. Lawmakers insist that the rapid turnaround is necessary because it is so late in the legislative session.

It is no doubt coincidental that the 9,000-word bill will receive limited public scrutiny and comment – let alone any opportunity for all stakeholders to discuss a compromise – before such a quick vote. The irony of undermining public access with a process that itself lacks public access seems lost on lawmakers.

Legislators have staked out the curious position that the public does not deserve to see documents that go into making laws. They are so worried that they wasted more than $125,000 of the public’s money on legal fees fighting the lawsuit. The people of Washington paid to defend lawmakers against the people of Washington.

It is not too late to email or call local lawmakers and tell them that the Legislature should not skulk in the shadows. More important, drop a line to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has hemmed and hawed about whether he would veto the bill if it passes. Tell him that even if he thinks a veto will be overridden, he should take a stand for the public’s right to know.

Democratic accountability relies on the public’s ability to know not just what lawmakers do, but why, how and with whom they do it.