Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Dec. 2, 2020

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In Our View: Sunshine, not Secrecy

Government openness vital to ensuring taxpayers' money being spent wisely

The Columbian
Published:

Because seemingly every week and every month on the calendar has been designated to recognize some social cause — January is “Stalking Awareness Month” and “National Mentoring Month,” among other things — it should come as no surprise that we are in the middle of “Sunshine Week.”

While this might or might not have anything to do with the weather (that will be up to Mother Nature), it definitely has something to do with open government and the need for an occasional reminder of its importance. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a president and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”

Which points out the need for governance that allows the public to have full knowledge of what is going on in the halls of power. The state of Washington long has had laws that strongly support openness in government, but a pair of recent developments highlight the need for vigilance in this regard.

Last week in Olympia, the Senate declined to move forward on a bill that would have opened to the public the collective bargaining negotiations that take place between officials and unions representing state workers. SB 5329 would have ended secret negotiations by lifting an exemption to the state’s Public Records Act.

Proponents of the secrecy claim that the exemption facilitates negotiations by allowing both sides to speak freely without revealing to the public their tactics or their primary bargaining chips. And while it is understandable that opening negotiations to the public might serve as a bit of a monkey wrench in the process, that concern is outweighed by the public’s right to know. Taxpayers, after all, are footing the bill for public employees’ salaries and benefits.

When state officials meet with leaders of public labor unions, they are determining how millions — or sometimes billions — of public dollars will be spent. And when pensions are involved, taxpayers can be handed a bill they will be paying for decades. Keeping negotiations secret from the public is an egregious violation of the notion of open government. As Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center wrote, “Taxpayers should be allowed to follow the process and hold government officials accountable for the spending decisions they make on our behalf.” It’s all part of that whole “ultimate rulers” thing that FDR pointed out.

On the other side of the open-government coin, the Senate unanimously voted in favor of a campaign finance transparency bill, SB 5153. The bill, which now goes to the House, would close loopholes that allow national groups to spend money designed to influence Washingtonians at the ballot box without disclosing their donors. This so-called “dark money” has become a major influence in politics, allowing trade or advocacy organizations — or deep-pocketed private donors — from across the country to impact elections here without voters being able to determine where the money is coming from. SB 5153 would require these groups to register with the state Public Disclosure Commission once they spend at least $25,000, and would require them to reveal their top 10 donors. The House should follow the Senate’s lead in approving the bill.

Democracy often can be messy. As both SB 5329 and SB 5153 indicate, the act of keeping the people informed can be intricate and confusing. But when it comes to open government, officials always should err on the side of letting the sunshine in.

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