Washington state legislators dug a hole on public transparency; they must climb out in 2019

As state lawmakers convene next week for a four-month session in Olympia, no challenge is more formidable, no task more urgent, than shedding their penchant for secrecy and doing away with the delusion that that the Legislature is above the laws of open government.

Yes, they’ll be focused on negotiating budgets that are acceptable to majority Democrats, minority Republicans and Gov. Jay Inslee. They’ll grapple with scores of issues, including the unfinished business of funding a full and fair education for 1.1 million K-12 students. They’ll spend long hours debating whether they have enough revenue to safeguard Washington’s interests for the next two years.

But in the end, new laws and billion-dollar spending decisions won’t be well received unless legislators acknowledge their deficit in the ledger of public accountability.

And then climb out of the deep hole they’ve dug themselves.

The shovels were brought out in force during the 2018 session. Leaders of all four caucuses in the House and Senate agreed on a shady plan — with no public hearings, and no floor discussion — to exempt the Legislature from Washington’s Public Records Act.

Senate Bill 6617 was a foolish attempt to get around a judge’s order last January to release emails, disclose personal calendars and otherwise obey the law, which legislators have long argued doesn’t apply to them.

Though both chambers approved SB6617 in late February, it soon became political roadkill; it was mowed down by a Mack truck of public opposition, propelled by the TNT and other news organizations that exposed the legislative ambush on the public’s right to know. Inslee, inundated by calls and emails, had little choice but to veto the bill.

Legislators eventually heeded the ageless advice of social commentator Will Rogers: When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. They agreed to go to the bargaining table and formed a task force of lawmakers, media members and other public records stakeholders.

Unfortunately, what came out of the 15-member task force in December, after a mere four meetings in four months, is hardly scintillating stuff. The top recommendation: “The Legislature should strive for greater transparency.”

Captain Obvious couldn’t have come up with a more vapid conclusion.

There is no mention of the voter-approved Public Records Act, except in the context of poking holes in it to protect people’s privacy. There is no exhortation for the Legislature to abide by the PRA, as local governments and state agencies have done for decades. If anything, the recommendations invite more wiggle room for legislators, such as considering additional “narrowly crafted” exemptions to the law (on top of the 500 already on the books) and identifying some record requests as “harassing” in nature.

At least there was one sensible piece of guidance, which the task force saved for the last of its eight recommendations: “The Legislature should continue to actively engage with stakeholders throughout the development of any legislation to implement these recommendations.”

We take that to mean: No more sneak attacks like Senate Bill 6617. Any legislator who would dare pull that stunt again is clearly not listening to constituents.

Rookies headed to Olympia next week can’t let leaders talk them into such arrogant nonsense. They would do well to closely read the full text of the 46-year-old Public Records Act before they’re sworn in.

They might even memorize the first few lines of the preamble: “the people of the state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them (and) … do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

Nothing in any task force report can match the power of that proclamation.