Tuesday, May 26, 2020
May 26, 2020

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In Our View: Lawmakers must do better for good of public

The Columbian

As the 2020 session of the Washington Legislature comes to a close, members of both parties will spend the coming days and weeks telling voters about their successes. But they also should face some questions about a glaring failure to improve transparency in state government.

On multiple occasions during the session, lawmakers have eschewed opportunities to embrace open government.

This week, as the session moved toward today’s scheduled adjournment, the House of Representatives joined the Senate in passing a bill that exempts birthdates of state and local government employees from disclosure under the Public Records Act. The bill allows exceptions for media access to the records.

The measure had widespread support in both chambers, and Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, was the only Southwest Washington lawmaker to vote in opposition. Despite that broad support, the bill moves the state in the wrong direction and represents legislators’ attempt at an end run around the Public Records Act, which was passed by voters in 1972.

Since then, lawmakers have routinely tried to poke holes in the law, including a persistent claim that they can keep some public records secret — such as appointment calendars or work-related emails. Elected city and county officials, meanwhile, cannot claim similar exemptions.

In the case of public employee birthdates, the bill is in response to an October ruling by the state Supreme Court that said such information is a public record. The court ruled that there was no statutory or constitutional allowance to preclude the release of the information, so legislators went ahead and made one.

The issue stems from efforts by the Freedom Foundation, a conservative group that has sought birthdates for the purpose of identifying members of public-employee unions. The organization uses the records to contact union members in efforts to reduce the size and influence of the unions.

Rather than persistently working to undermine the Public Records Act, lawmakers should be bolstering the law and its applications, recognizing that transparency is essential to democracy. While the exemption for media outlets is beneficial for The Columbian — media members often use birthdates to confirm criminal records or conduct background checks — if a loophole is good enough for the press it should be good enough for the public.

Meanwhile, lawmakers also failed in another issue related to transparency — the use of “title-only” bills. This is a long-standing practice that violates the spirit of the law if not the letter of it.

The Washington Constitution states that all bills in the Legislature must be introduced at least 10 days before the end of the session, allowing proper time for vetting and for public input and, if necessary, for an analysis by the Department of Revenue. As a workaround, lawmakers often file blank bills under a heading such as “related to tax revenue” and then fill in the blanks near the end of the session.

Three bills were introduced this session to end the use of title-only bills — all filed by Republicans, who are the minority in both chambers — but none of them received a committee hearing.

Lawmakers from both parties must do better for the good of the public. Title-only bills amount to deception that undermines transparency and is anathema to open government.

All of this should lead to some hard questions for lawmakers and reminders that they are elected to serve the public — and that service requires transparency.