Open Government

WPC's Center for Government Reform's mission is to partner with stakeholders and citizens to work toward a government focused on its core functions while improving its transparency, accountability, performance, and effectiveness for taxpayers.

What's New

In Our View: Cameras in Courts

May 2, 2010 in In the News
The Columbian (Vancouver)
Source: 
The Columbian (Vancouver)
Date: 
Sunday, May 2, 2010

Washington's congressional delegation should join transparency caucus

April 30, 2010 in Blog

Yesterday 27 Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House officially launched a Transparency Caucus.

As reported by NextGov:

"We're going to do a review and find out whether the public accepts the current disclosure," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., co-founding chairman of the caucus and ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

One of the group's first actions will be to ensure that information posted on the Web from every branch of government is consistent, searchable and downloadable, he said. The uniform level of reporting would allow citizens to have a better context for comparing spending figures such as federal officials'!
; compensation and earmarks, or appropriations for lawmakers' pet projects.

The goal of the caucus, which was announced in March, is to advance transparency and accountability across government. Measuring these goals will require online access to government information in formats that can be searched and downloaded for free, according to the caucus' principles. The group plans to make such information available by educating lawmakers, taking legislative action and overseeing existing polices.

"Our greatest challenge and mandate in government is regaining the public's trust," said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., the caucus' other co-founding chairman. "It means not just paying lip service, but taking financial responsibility, transparency and ethics as seriously as the voters want us to. If we can make the tough decisions and prove these as our priorities to the public, trust will follow."

Noticeably abs!
ent from the caucus are any members from Washington state. As !
a national leader on open government issues it is disappointing to not see our state represented. Hopefully Washington's Representatives will soon join this effort and Senators Murray and Cantwell will work to form a Senate Transparency Caucus.

It's time to televise U.S. Supreme Court hearings

April 29, 2010 in Blog

Though C-SPAN may never boast the highest ratings on television, it is likely there would have been a spike in Washington state viewers if yesterday's Supreme Court arguments on the state's public records law were televised.

A bill being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee may help to encourage reluctant Supreme Court Justices to allow their proceedings to be televised. According to The Hill

A handful of lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee hope to compel the Supreme Court to begin televising its proceedings.

Days after Justice Steven Br!
eyer shot down the prospect that the high bench would permit cameras in the court room this year, 13 committee members from both parties voted to advance legislation that would force SCOTUS to do just that.

A similar effort to express the "sense of the Senate in support of permitting the televising of Supreme Court proceedings" also cleared the committee on a 13-6 vote on Thursday. However, that effort is more symbolic, and would not have the force of law.

“Television coverage of the Supreme Court is long overdue, and I’m pleased that the Committee made progress on this front today,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).  “The Supreme Court makes pronouncements on Constitutional and federal law that have a direct impact on the rights of all Americans. Those rights would be substantially enhanced by televising the oral arguments of the Court so that the public can see and hear the issues presented.”

The committee also cl!
eared a third bill on Thursday that would instruct lower feder!
al district and circuit courts to televise their proceedings too. Led by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the legislation carves out an exception for cases that could "endanger trial participants."

Our state version of C-SPAN, TVW, has been televising state Supreme Court hearings for years. It is past time for the federal courts to be brought into the 21st Century and allow citizens to see firsthand the legal arguments being made that may impact our rights as Americans. 

Back to yesterday's Supreme Court hearing on the state's public records law, it looks like opponents of public disclosure for signature petitions have a new ally - Bill Gates Sr.

Here is an excerpt from an interview with the Stranger: 

Question: Here’s a qu!
estion that’s only tangentially connected, but it’s timely. This week, the United States Supreme Court is taking up a lawsuit that grew out of Referendum 71, in which the court will ultimately answer the question of whether petition signatures for initiatives and referendums in our state should become public record. How do you feel about that debate?

Gates Sr.: I lean in the direction that it shouldn’t be public, doesn’t need to be public. You know, I don’t think that the initiative process is the best thing that’s ever happened to government, to start with. And I think there would be a concern that in signing this, my name will be on page three of the Seattle Times tomorrow morning and it adds something… negative to signing a petition, and that concerns me. That’s it.

Of course, this argument didn't sit too well with Justice Scalia who said yesterday, " . . .the people [of] Washingt!
on evidently think that this is not too much of an imposition upon peop!
le's courage, to -- to stand up and sign something and be willing to stand behind it."

State's public records law on trial

April 28, 2010 in Blog

Today was a big day for Attorney General Rob McKenna, Secretary of State Sam Reed, and supporters of the state's public records law. The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Doe v. Reed. The controversy focuses on whether the signature petitions to overturn R-71 are public records and can be disclosed.

Here are details from McKenna's press release:

Laws granting access to government records are constitutional, and the public’s right to double-check election officials and signature gatherers should be upheld.

That’s part of the case Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna took to the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, as he defended the latest challenge to Washington state’s Public Records Act.

“Access to government information, including referendum petitions, allows Washingtonians to trust – but verify !
– their government’s work,” McKenna said. “The public’s right to government records is an overriding state interest and shouldn’t be pushed aside because of one controversial ballot campaign.”

McKenna added that locking up petitions invites fraud that can’t be uncovered through a simple public records request. The state’s brief cites petition fraud cases from several other states, including Arkansas, Montana, Oklahoma and Nevada, as well as the District of Columbia.

McKenna and Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed also put the case in context of widespread attacks on open government laws.

“The petitioners have launched more than 25 cases to reduce disclosure and transparency in elections,” said Secretary of State Sam Reed. “This is a national effort to challenge open record laws around the country.”

Reading the tea leaves it looks like the state's public records law will prev!
ail. Here are the transcripts from the oral arguments

Justice Antonin Scalia wins first prize for his numerous zingers. Here is a sampling:

" . . .the people [of] Washington evidently think that this is not too much of an imposition upon people's courage, to -- to stand up and sign something and be willing to stand behind it."

"You know, you can't run a democracy this way, with everybody being afraid of having his political positions known."

". . . in light of the fact that for the first century of our existence, even voting was public -- you either did it raising your hand or by voice, or later, you had a ballot that was very visibly red or blue so that people knew which party you were voting for -- the fact is that running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism or even nasty phone!
calls when you exercise your political rights to legislate, or to take part in the legislative process. You are asking us to enter into a whole new field where we have never gone before."

Also note this exchange with McKenna:

JUSTICE SCALIA: It -- it may be an issue in which his administration has taken a particularly firm stand and the public may not trust the job that the Secretary of State does.

GENERAL McKENNA: That goes to the heart to the Public Records Act, Justice Scalia, trust but verify. The people did not leave to the State the idea that, well, we will let you know what you need to know.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Trust but verify, I like that.

We'll know later this summer if a majority of the justices also like that argument and vote to uphold the state's public records act.

State's Public Records Law On Trial

April 28, 2010 in In the News
Seattle PostGlobe
Source: 
Seattle PostGlobe
Date: 
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

This is not the time for a new welfare program

April 27, 2010 in Blog

With the state once again projected to face a multi-billion dollar budget deficit in 2011-13, this is not the time to start a new welfare program.

Unfortunately this is the path the 2010 supplemental budget sets the state on. That is of course, unless the Governor uses her veto pen.

Here are the details from Section 136 (6) of SB 6444

"$1,200,000 of the general fund--state appropriation for fiscal year 2011 is provided solely for making the necessary preparations for implementation of the working families tax exemption pursuant to RCW 82.08.0206 in 2012."

The working family rebates were adopted as a policy goal in 2008 but not funded.

The $1.2 million is not to provide the working family rebates but for the Department of Revenue to set up the administrative process required to begin making the payments in 2011-13 if funded.

According to legislative staff, funding the working family rebates could cost more than $105 million in 2011-13.

Of note is the fact this proviso is different from the original version not included in the conference budget. Consider Section 135 (4) of an earlier approved version of SB 6444 (emphasis added):

"$5,250,000 of the general fund--state appropriation for fiscal year 2011 is provided solely for the implementation of Senate Bill No. 6875 (working families tax exemption). If the bill is not enacted by June 30, 2010, the amount pr!
ovided in this subsection shall lapse. It is also the !
intent of this subsection to approve implementation of the working families tax exemption as required in RCW 82.08.0206(4)."

SB 6875 would have increased the sales tax in-part to pay for the working family rebates. The bill was not adopted.

The more important part of that proviso was this sentence: "It is also the intent of this subsection to approve implementation
of the working families tax exemption as required in RCW 82.08.0206(4)."

You'll note that the proviso included in the final budget does not include this phrase which means the only thing being approved is $1.2 million in administrative costs for DOR, not the commitment of the Legislature required by RCW 82.08.0206(4) to begin funding the working family rebates.

Since it is unlikely a new welfare program costing more than $100 million will be high on the priority list of lawmakers trying to close a projected multi-billion dollar deficit, the use of $1.2 million for administrative prep costs seems like a waste of resources.

It would be prudent for the Governor to veto this section of the budget unless she believes the state can afford a new welfare program without raising taxes in the next budget.

A Failure to Communicate

April 27, 2010 in In the News
SeattlePI.com
Source: 
SeattlePI.com
Date: 
Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Legislative tax error shows value of transparency

April 26, 2010 in Blog

The Legislature's well documented lack of transparency this past session was not only an affront to citizens that demand open and accountable government but also lead to an easily avoidable error in the final tax package that could cost even more Washington jobs. 

By failing to slow down long enough to hold a single public hearing on the final tax proposal or allow enough time for lawmakers to read and understand the tax changes being made, lawmakers failed to provide the relief they thought they were granting to the in-state soda industry when raising the pop tax.

As noted by Washington !
State Wire
:

Here’s what happens when you pass a soda-pop tax increase and you don’t bother with a hearing.

You get a great big sticky mess.

As part of their $794 million budget-balancing tax package this year, lawmakers decided to increase the tax on soda pop by two cents a can. And when small bottlers across the state said it was a tax they couldn’t bear, lawmakers said no problem – they’d give them an exemption.

Trouble is, the Legislature didn’t understand how the industry worked.

Now bottlers are foaming. They say they’re stuck with a tax break that won’t work and a tax increase that will cut deeply into their business. Lawmakers say they’re sorry, they didn’t mean it that way – and maybe they’ll fix it next year.

“That doesn’t make me feel very good,” said Tim Martin, president of the Washington Beverage Association and owner of Harbor Pacific Bottling in Elma. Th!
e Legislature’s boo-boo will cost him $375,000, and every ot!
her small bottling company in communities around the state will face a tax bill just like his.

“Time will only tell how it’s going to work, but whatever happens, we’re going to have to tighten our belt and lay off a few people,” he said . . .

By the time of Friday’s bill signing, nearly two weeks had elapsed since the final draft of the bill was released. The soda-pop industry made sure everyone knew about the problem, and they lined up support from House Speaker Frank Chopp. He asked Gov. Gregoire to use her line-item veto to eliminate the pop tax – but the governor said no.

It wasn’t easy getting legislators to agree on the tax bill, she said, and she sold the compromise to the Legislature as a package. She wasn’t about to go back on the deal unless Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, asked her to do it, too. Gregoire said she spoke with Brown Friday morning, and Brown didn’t ask. So the pop tax stayed.

ote>

Transparency is not a fad or catch phrase, it's the cornerstone of a functioning democracy and government accountability.

Maybe, just maybe, enough lawmakers will understand this next year and institute long overdue transparency reforms to help involve the public and avoid future mistakes caused by rushing through legislation.