Happy Sunshine Week!

By JASON MERCIER  | 
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Mar 12, 2018

Happy Sunshine Week! No, I’m not talking about the fantastic weather we’re currently experiencing (though that is marvelous) but instead the national celebration of our right to know about the conduct of our government. A few weeks ago, the forecast for Sunshine Week called for a category 5 Sharknado of secrecy in Washington. That was prior, however, to the Governor’s veto of SB 6617 (Legislative public records) and lawmakers’ new promise for a transparent process to discuss legislative public records reform. There are still some nasty looking clouds on the horizon but for now we have a break in the weather to discuss next steps for legislative transparency. As for what type of government transparency the people demand:

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

It is because of this strong mandate for government transparency that we saw the unprecedented reaction from the people to the process and details surrounding SB 6617. The good news is that the recently adopted 2018 Supplemental budget provides a framework for a public records stakeholder group to further discuss next steps. According to Section 925 of the budget:

“The senate facilities and operations committee and the house of representatives executive rules committee shall convene a legislative task force to examine establishing standards for maintaining and disclosing public records for the legislative branch of government . . . The task force shall report its findings and recommendations to the appropriate committees of the legislature by December 1, 2018.”

So what type of recommendations might come out of this new legislative public records work group? Our hope is that agreement can be reached that whatever open government mandates are required of local lawmakers, they’ll be equally applied to state lawmakers. By doing so all government officials would have access to the same exemptions from disclosure and be subject to the same transparency requirements.

The need for improved legislative transparency doesn’t just apply to public records. As noted by the Seattle Times:

“Lawmakers have introduced at least two dozen 'title-only’ bills, blank placeholders that allow lawmakers to slap together legislation at the last minute without running up against a constitutional provision that makes it harder to pass bills introduced during the final days of a session.

All this workaround does is keep the public in the dark.

If lawmakers have learned anything from this year’s public-records debacle and last year’s rushed budget, it should be that listening to the public is a key part of their job. They should take that lesson to heart and stop cutting citizens out of the process by leaving some of their most important work until the last minute.”

Based on recent comments from lawmakers, however, the appetite for additional legislative transparency reforms may be growing. Sen. Guy Palumbo told me today:

“Having seen two budgets up close now, we made great strides towards transparency in 2018 under Sen Rolfes' tenure, compared to the last minute McCleary budget. I am sure that trend will continue in 2019. There are structural reforms to the legislative process that have been proposed in the past by people like Jason Mercier. These include things like banning title only bills, waiving the 5 day rule and other changes which I support.

However, unwinding a decades-old process in any large organization, whether it be public or private, will be an enormous task. Large institutions of all kinds are understandably resistant to massive disruptions. And we shouldn't discount the very real short term thrash that is created for our excellent staff in Olympia as they try to meet new deadlines like the 24 hour rule. These types of reforms do require a rethinking of the legislative calendar to ensure staff have the ability to meet any new expectations."

The reforms mentioned by Sen. Palumbo are reflected in SB 6560 from 2014: "Increasing legislative transparency by providing mandatory notice and waiting periods before legislative action, banning title-only bills, and opening all legislative committees to the public."

My hope is that before we celebrate Sunshine Week in 2019, the state will have taken significant steps towards adopting these reforms and finally removing the open government double standard that exists between state and local lawmakers. As the sovereigns of the state have made clear, “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.” That expectation for transparency is true for all levels of government.