In Our View: We’re No. 3 — And Stalled

National open-government ranking looks good, but Legislature drags its feet

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Compared with other states, Washington is a beacon of open government. Specifically, we rank No. 3 among the states in the “State Integrity Investigation” announced recently by stateintegrity.org.But when aligned against the standards established by Washington voters 38 years ago -- when Initiative 276 created the Washington Public Disclosure Act -- we continue to fall far short of our state’s values. First the good news:

Only five states earned B grades (there were no A’s) on the stateintegrity.org list, which is “a first-of-its-kind, data-driven assessment of transparency, accountability and anti-corruption mechanisms in all 50 states.” And Washington’s 83 numerical grade ranks third behind New Jersey (87) and Connecticut (86). Oregon (C-minus or 73) was rated 14th.

Pretty impressive, right? And we have that 1974 ballot measure to thank for our position as a national role model. Some examples provided by stateintegrity.org of dishonorable practices around the country will disgust any rational constituent of state government: Hundreds of government employees in Georgia accepted gifts from vendors doing business with the state. A North Carolina legislator who co-owned five billboards sponsored and voted on a bill to loosen regulations on billboard construction. An ethics commission established six years ago in Tennessee has yet to issue a single ethics penalty, and complaints are not made available to the public.

The website decries problems around the country such as open records laws “with hundreds of exemptions. Crucial budgeting decisions made behind closed doors by a handful of power brokers. ‘Citizen’ lawmakers voting on bills that would benefit them directly. Scores of legislators turning into lobbyists seemingly overnight. Disclosure laws without much disclosure. Ethics panels that haven’t met in years.”

Before we Washingtonians start thinking too highly of ourselves, however, be advised that our lawmakers are stalled in a troubling malaise when it comes to making government more open.

Two tireless warriors in the cause have been retiring State Auditor Brian Sonntag (a Democrat) and Attorney General Rob McKenna (a Republican and a candidate for governor). Among organizations, Washington Policy Center has been one of the fiercest advocates of figurative but powerful sunshine illuminating public work. Despite all of these efforts, this year’s Legislature failed to move toward a constitutional amendment that would enhance mandatory notice of public meetings, prohibit “title only” bills and create other mechanisms for making government more transparent.

In an op-ed for The Tri-City Herald, McKenna wrote that in 2012, “we proposed a bill requiring that public employees be trained to better understand the Open Public Meetings Act. … Legislators allowed it to die in committee, meaning neither the full House nor Senate had the opportunity for an up or down vote.” Also, McKenna wrote that “we proposed legislation to simply allow -- not require -- the recording of executive sessions. Another quiet committee death.”

Those two deaths sound more like Georgia, North Carolina or Tennessee. Not Washington. We’re better than that.

The Columbian will continue shining light on the progress -- and lack of same -- in making state government more open. The words of I-276 ring as true today as they did back in 1974: “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”