State lawmakers, who have largely exempted themselves from public disclosure laws, met a recent attempt by The Seattle Times and public radio Northwest News Network to shine some light on this year’s legislative process with stone-cold silence.
To hold elected officials accountable, the public requires access to public records, especially as the Legislature girds itself to fix public school funding. Openness builds trust in the government process.
But when journalists requested records from Democratic and Republican leaders in both the state House and Senate, the leaders declined to waive the legislative exemption and release the records. Some lawmakers didn’t even respond to requests for comment about their decision on the records request. Others said they might be willing to review how state records laws apply to lawmakers sometime after this year’s legislative session ends.
So for now, their negotiations over the K-12 budget and state education policy will continue in private.
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While the public can seek records such as emails and calendars of other state officials and the governor, lawmakers do not require themselves to follow the same rules.
Records show from whom elected officials are hearing, who is trying to influence their decisions and what they are talking about with each other. As lawmakers slog through the complicated process of coming up with a plan to fix the way the state pays for public schools and bring more equity and better outcomes to Washington’s students, it’s important for the public to understand the Legislature’s work.
The Public Records Act, which voters passed as an initiative in 1972, should be changed to remove the exemption that allows lawmakers to work in the dark.
Those who want to expose the process behind state employee contract negotiations are the same lawmakers who don’t want the public to know how they are negotiating their property-tax rates.
Lawmakers who think school budgets are not transparent enough don’t feel the same way about the state budget.
At least a dozen other states require legislators to release some or all of their emails or calendar items, according to The Associated Press. It’s time for Washington to join that group.
The public’s business should be conducted in public.