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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Editorial: Veto the Legislature’s secrecy bill

Lawmakers listen to testimony during a joint work session of the Senate and House State Government Committees on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, at the Capitol in Olympia. The session was held to discuss a bill filed Wednesday by lawmakers who want to circumvent a recent court ruling finding them fully subject to the state’s public disclosure laws. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

State lawmakers want to keep secrets from Washingtonians. Last week, they hurriedly passed a bill to create a special public records law just for them. It’s far weaker than the Public Records Act that applies to most of the rest of government. Now Gov. Jay Inslee must decide if he will become complicit in this legislative cowardice by signing the bill or if he will stand with the people and veto it.

A brief recap for those who have better things to do than carefully track the Olympia soap opera.

The Legislature for years has stymied public records requests. When residents or journalists asked to see, say, the evidence gathered in a sexual harassment investigation, lawmakers routinely would say no.

A coalition of news media that included The Spokesman-Review sued, and a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled in January that lawmakers were breaking the law. The Public Records Act applies to them. They need to be transparent.

Lawmakers in Oregon, Idaho and many other states don’t have a problem with being transparent, but the thought of the public looking over their shoulder scared the heck out of Washington’s senators and representatives. On Wednesday last week, they introduced Senate Bill 6617 to undo the judge’s ruling. It passed both chambers only two days later without a public hearing or debate.

Now it’s waiting for the governor’s signature.

The governor doesn’t like to veto bills that pass with veto-proof majorities, as this one did. That’s normally a reasonable principle, but it isn’t about process this time. It’s about doing what’s right and giving everyone a chance for a do-over.

Legislative leaders denied the public an opportunity to participate last week. Inslee can give it to them. Between now and a vote to override a veto, Washingtonians would have time to tell lawmakers to step back from the precipice.

A delay also would give lawmakers time to review the bill more closely. They might start by chatting with Sen. Mike Baumgartner, one of the few lawmakers – and the only one from the Spokane area – courageous enough to stand up to his peers and vote no.

The bill’s backers have not articulated a compelling reason for a two-tiered public records system. They haven’t explained why records the Legislature holds are so much more sensitive and in need of cloistering than the records held by the governor, by the State Police and by everyone else who does the people’s business.

Not that they admit that’s even what they’re doing. Legislative leaders insult Washingtonians’ intelligence by insisting that they are increasing access and transparency.

That’s true, if your baseline is a few months ago when lawmakers wouldn’t share anything. But the courts set a new baseline of transparency in January, and now lawmakers are rolling it back. They’ve even made the bill retroactive to ensure they don’t have to give the people any access.

For example, under the bill communication with registered lobbyists would be public. Communication with anyone else, however, would be secret again. That means when a timber baron e-mails his senator daily asking for permission to harvest on protected public land or a tech billionaire seeks tax cuts to benefit her company, no one would ever be the wiser.

And if lawmakers withhold records that they shouldn’t, there is no independent oversight in the bill. Appeals wouldn’t go to the courts but to the Senate Facilities and Operations or House Executive Rules committee, where lawmakers can sit in judgment of themselves. Public records could then become one more weapon in partisan skirmishes. The majority party holds a majority on each committee. It’s depressingly easy to imagine them looking more favorably on releasing records that embarrass the minority and holding back ones that embarrass their own party.

That’s if an appeal ever happens. The Legislature’s website contains precious little information about these F&O and Executive Rules committees. Good luck finding out who sits on them, when they meet or even how to contact them.

Transparency is essential for a healthy democracy. Voters need to know not just what decisions were made, but why they were made and who had a hand in shaping them. With that information, they can cast informed ballots on Election Day and hold their elected officials accountable. Anything less is just incumbent protection and backroom dealing.

Time is short. Urge Gov. Inslee to veto Senate Bill 6617 and the Spokane-area delegation to come to its senses and not override him.