Saturday, October 31, 2020
Oct. 31, 2020

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In Our View: A Point of Embarrassment

The Columbian
Published:

It is not a point of pride that the Center for Public Integrity last year gave Washington an overall grade of D-plus for integrity and accountability in state government. In fact, it should be a point of embarrassment for those tasked with safeguarding the public trust, and it should be one that has lawmakers looking for solutions.

One step toward a solution has presented itself in twin bills requested by Attorney General Bob Ferguson — House Bill 1136 (with Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, as one of 15 co-sponsors) and Senate Bill 6258. The legislation would require lawmakers and senior state employees to wait at least one year after leaving their post to become a paid lobbyist or taking a job that involves attempting to influence state policy.

Several recent examples point out the need for such legislation:

• Shortly after Ferguson’s predecessor, Rob McKenna, left office, it was revealed that McKenna and his deputy were lobbying the state on behalf of clients Microsoft and T-Mobile.

• Two former high-ranking state transportation officials accepted jobs with engineering giant Parsons Brinckerhoff, which has been the beneficiary of state contracts for projects such as Seattle’s Highway 99 tunnel and Sound Transit system.

• And three former officials for the state Department of Commerce are now employed by Seattle-based 1Energy Systems. That connection led to a recent investigation by the state Executive Ethics Board, which found there was no undue influence in 1Energy helping Snohomish County obtain a $7.3 million grant through the state’s Clean Energy Fund.

As often is the case in politics, perception can be as important as reality. And any perception that former state officials are taking jobs so they can immediately use their connections, knowledge and experience to influence the awarding of state contracts is problematic. Employment by the state should be viewed as an opportunity to serve the public, not a chance to infiltrate an oligarchy and land a lucrative job elsewhere. As Ferguson said: “The revolving door from public- to private-sector employment undermines public trust by giving the appearance of special access, unfair advantage and conflicts of interest.”

State law currently contains some provisions limiting state officials and employees from entering private employment and using confidential information for the benefit of their new companies, but stricter measures are called for. Congress and more than 30 states have provisions requiring a “cooling-off” period before former government employees may begin lobbying on behalf of their private employers, and last year Seattle voters approved a three-year cooling-off period for former city officials.

The 2015 report from the Center for Public Integrity, in fact, noted the state’s lack of such a waiting period in giving Washington an F grade for executive accountability. “This overdue reform will promote government integrity and deter improper influence,” Ferguson said.

Last year, lawmakers bypassed an opportunity to help restore the public’s faith in the system, as a House bill on the matter failed to gain traction. This year’s effort has languished thus far, as well. Taxpayers deserve better, and the Legislature should work tirelessly to provide transparency and earn the confidence of the people. As primary sponsor Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, noted: “This is common-sense legislation that will lead us on the path to restoring public trust in government.”

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