Editorials

Political snow alert: It’s not an ambush this time, but new Washington public records bill remains flawed

Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, speaks on the Senate floor in Olympia. He’s the sponsor of this year’s proposal to regulate public record disclosures in the legislative branch.
Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, speaks on the Senate floor in Olympia. He’s the sponsor of this year’s proposal to regulate public record disclosures in the legislative branch. AP

The right of ordinary Washingtonians to know the plans, schemes and motives of state lawmakers is again under siege in Olympia this year. Senate Bill 5784, which purports to be a good-government proposal, is a Trojan Horse stuffed with many of the same dangerous ideas that legislative leaders toyed with in 2018 to shield themselves from the Public Records Act.

The first public hearing is set for Wednesday morning at 8 a.m., weather permitting. With the region bogged down by snow, the proposal won’t be subjected to the skepticism it should receive from the outset. Citizens who care about transparency must track the bill closely this session, push for amendments and be no less outspoken than they were last winter.

To be clear: There’s nowhere to go but up after the fiasco of a year ago. With no open discussion and a mockery of a public process, the House and Senate fast-tracked a bill letting legislators hide emails, personal calendars, misconduct investigations and other records that local and state government officials are required to release. They backed down only after the public cried foul and Gov. Jay Inslee was pressured to veto the bill.

The bar remained set embarrassingly low in the ensuing months; a public records task force held four meetings, then rolled out an anemic set of conclusions in December, including that: “The Legislature should strive for greater transparency.”

The new bill, sponsored by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, could be viewed as a step in the right direction. At least it’s not another ambush; Pedersen released a draft version early in the 105-day session, and we hope this week’s hearing before the Senate state government committee will be the start of a robust public dialogue.

SB5784 would raise standards in a few sensible areas; for instance, newly elected legislators would have to take an open-government training course within 90 days of assuming office, as statewide and local elected officials already do. A mandatory course could help instill a respect for Washington’s nearly 50-year old voter-approved Public Records Act — a respect that was alarmingly deficient at the Capitol a year ago.

Unfortunately, many of the flaws from 2018 remain; first and foremost, this bill would favor legislators with special non-disclosure privileges that state agencies, city and county councils and local school boards don’t enjoy and yet manage to survive without.

It flouts a principle succinctly expressed by the Washington Coalition for Open Government. WACOGs No. 1 legislative priority this year: Treat legislative records the same as other public records.

Pedersen’s bill is riddled with exemptions for documents that should be open for inspection because they shed light on legislators’ thinking, influence peddling and horsetrading. Drafts of bills and amendments would be protected, as would records of how politicians intend to vote, plus memos and notes from staff that lay out legal, policy or fiscal alternatives.

In short, nearly everything that the public and its watchdog press corps wants to see — and in many cases is currently allowed to access — would be off limits.

What’s worse, lawmakers could rebuff perfectly valid records requests while the Legislature is in session. We get that they’re busy and accountability can be inconvenient. But what kind of message does that send to constituents who want to stay informed and shape public policy while it’s being made?

Legislators like to talk about protecting their deliberative process behind caucus doors. But giving them carte-blanche secrecy like this is unacceptable.

Granted, it’s still early in the session. Pedersen and his colleagues may view this draft of SB5784 as little more than a trial balloon. But after last year’s shenanigans, the public should take nothing for granted.

A lot of snow has flown around the Puget Sound area in the last 10 days, impairing visibility and making things slippery. There’s a lot of it in this bill, too. It’s time to start shoveling.

HEARING SCHEDULED (FOR NOW)

What: Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee

When: Wednesday (Feb. 13), 8 a.m.

Where: 439A J.A. Cherberg Building, Olympia Capitol Campus

Committee Hearings & Bill Information: (360) 786-7473

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