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

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Editorial: Don’t gut public records laws to serve public sector unions

State lawmakers must take perverse pleasure in keeping Washingtonians in the dark. Having returned to Olympia, Democratic legislators are pushing a sneaky bill that would wreak all kinds of havoc when it comes to accountability and public employees.

House Bill 1888 would exempt public employees’ birthdates from the state Public Records Act. The state Supreme Court last year ruled that birthdates must be released. If someone wants to know when Gov. Jay Inslee was born, that information is only a public records request away. Of course, one could just check Wikipedia, which reports his birthday as Feb. 9, 1951, but he’s the governor. The state employs more than 66,000 people, most of whom aren’t prominent enough to have a Wikipedia page. Then there are tens of thousands more public employees in local governments who fall under public records laws.

Birthday transparency doesn’t sit well with public sector unions. And if the unions are unhappy, it’s a safe bet that Democrats are unhappy.

Hence we have HB1888. Supporters say they just want to protect public employees from identity theft and other nefarious uses of such information. We haven’t seen a case yet of a criminal using public records law to get a birthdate and steal a public employee’s identity, but we suppose it’s possible. Thankfully, the law already exempts genuinely sensitive information including Social Security and driver’s license numbers, personal email addresses and home addresses.

What we have seen is a lot of good journalism and government watchdogging that uses birthdates to make sure that a public employee has been properly identified. For example, the Seattle Times used names and corresponding birthdates to identify 98 school employees who had been fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct but continued to teach or coach.

The magnitude of the problem this bill would cause becomes clear after a glance at the state’s public employee salary database (also a public record).

From 2014 to 2018, the state employed people named “M. Smith” in 53 jobs. (We are not including the full first name as a courtesy to all of the M. Smiths who we assume are nice people and didn’t expect to see their names in an editorial today.) Some of those appear to be one or another M. Smith moving between jobs, but not all. The senior lecturer at University of Washington probably isn’t also a warehouse operator with the Department of Corrections or a custodian with Western Washington University. A birthdate helps differentiate between them and makes background checks possible. The odds of two random people with the same name having been born on the same day in the same year are vanishingly small.

None of that matters to public sector unions. They are pushing this bill largely because conservative groups use public records to contact workers and inform them that they don’t have to pay union dues. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that no public worker can be compelled to support a union. The unions, understandably, want to make opting-out as hard as possible.

HB1888 isn’t just about birthdays, either. The bill also would require government bodies to give employees and unions a heads-up anytime there’s a request for records containing information about an employee. There’d be a mandatory 10-day minimum delay before handing over those records. And the government couldn’t release information about payroll deductions. No more finding out whose paychecks the unions are dipping into.

Those provisions would exist only to gum up the works. They would lead to delays in releasing information and create additional costs for Washingtonians who just want to know what their government is doing. They’d also give unions a heads-up that someone is poking around.

The Legislature spent the past couple of years fighting transparency applied to lawmakers. It ultimately lost in the state Supreme Court and the court of public opinion. Washingtonians said loud and clear that open government is important. Apparently they didn’t learn their lesson. HB1888 would water down the state’s public records law to serve the ends of political allies over the public at large.