Washington voters are being asked to consider Initiative 1501, a measure promising to protect seniors from identity theft.
Identity theft is a scourge, and seniors and other vulnerable individuals are deserving of as much protection as possible from scammers.
However, I-1501 is a bad proposal that should be rejected. It’s unclear whether it would have any effect on identity theft. But that’s not really why it’s on the ballot.
I-1501 is a Trojan horse. It’s being run by a deep-pocketed special-interest group that wants to weaken the state Public Records Act, reducing the people’s access to government records.
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Don’t be fooled by I-1501’s pitch to close scary loopholes and block the release of records that enable identity theft. There are no such loopholes. The state’s Public Records Act already gives sensitive records explicit protections.
Records about taxpayers and public employees cannot be disclosed if doing so would violate their right to privacy. Lawmakers have strengthened these protections repeatedly in recent years. It’s an absurd scare tactic to imply, as I-1501 does, that “account numbers and balances” and “passwords” are publicly available records.
Yes, identity theft is a problem. Solutions are elusive and must continue to be a priority for lawmakers. Between hacks of Premera Blue Cross, Yahoo, the federal government and countless other entities, sensitive personal information about many Americans has already been leaked.
Still, identity-theft levels have remained steady, affecting about 7 percent of Americans annually. About 86 percent of victims suffer out-of-pocket losses less than $1, according to federal statistics.
Voters should be aware that I-1501 is the result of a spat between the powerful Service Employees International Union and the conservative Freedom Foundation. They are fighting over whether the foundation can contact state-employed care providers to inform them they no longer are required to pay union dues or fees to SEIU, following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2014.
Because these care providers are public employees, basic contact information is available upon request. This is an inescapable facet of public service: In an open government, the public gets to know who is receiving its tax dollars.
SEIU sued to prevent these records from being released and lost in superior and appeals courts. Then it tried and failed to get disclosure rules changed in the Legislature.
Now it’s trying to win via I-1501. SEIU is the sole donor, with more than $1.6 million spent so far, on a campaign for I-1501. It’s called the Campaign to Prevent Fraud and Protect Seniors.
If SEIU is becoming a crusader against identity theft, that’s terrific. But it should do so without seeking to amend the Public Records Act in a way that prevents regular citizens — but not the union — from accessing legitimate public records.
The initiative also directs the state to find “any additional records that should be made exempt from public disclosure” to provide greater protection. Ugh.
Regardless of how one feels about SEIU or the Freedom Foundation, I-1501 is a poor approach to making policy. It manipulates voters, using fears and sympathy to make a records-act change rejected by courts and lawmakers.
It’s unclear if I-1501 would have much effect on identity theft. It would increase penalties and allow civil penalties three times actual damages if victims are seniors or vulnerable. Stiffer penalties should benefit all victims.
What is clear is that I-1501 would set a bad precedent. It would establish that clever special-interest groups could carve holes in the Public Records Act to their benefit, if they’ve got $1.6 million to spend.
Reject I-1501, and instead urge lawmakers to more directly address identity theft.