Dec 13 | 2018 Re-Wire Policy Conference | Learn More

Four observations from the legislature’s transparency misstep

The “Great Transparency Kerfuffle of 2018” ended last week with Gov. Inslee’s veto. The legislature had sought to add a set of exemptions to the applicability of the state’s Public Disclosure Act to the legislature itself.

It didn’t go well.

The 48 hours from bill launch to bill passage caused a storm of response among the media, generating over 15,000 calls to Gov. Inslee’s office in support of a veto.

Ahead of his veto, Gov. Inslee secured a deal with legislative leaders and with media outlets that were suing the legislature on the issue to collaborate on a policy solution moving forward.

So, in theory, the dust will begin to settle on this topic.  The legislature will (hopefully) adjourn this week.  And, things will return to some state of normal – at least before the midterm elections heat up.

As that dust settles, there are at least four takeaways from this moment in Washington State politics that have legislators, advocates and political observers all buzzing, either in public or in more private conversations.


1.  This was a failure of legislative leadership

I understand that there are times to jam through legislation on a narrow time frame.  It happens almost every year with the budget.  Another one of those times is when you want to protect your rank and file members from difficult lobbying, moving quickly to deny stakeholders the time to organize advocacy work.

In those instances, it’s incumbent on legislative leadership to explain to the broader public and stakeholders the rationale and reasoning for the legislation, and to stand and take the hits from stakeholders that are upset about an otherwise too narrow hearing of the bill in the legislative process.

That didn’t fully happen here.

In the Senate, to their credit, Sen. Sharon Nelson and Sen. Mark Schoesler both stood and spoke on the underlying bill.  Sen. Schoesler had the most concise, compelling rationale for the legislation of anyone when he spoke from the floor.

“I, too, believe in open government and transparency. The bi-partisan approach here is a clear move towards more transparency in the legislature.  Just as important as transparency is the ability of lawmakers to effectively work on behalf of those that sent us here.  The recent court order is completely unworkable.  It treats each of the 147 individuals as separate government agencies, and requires each lawmaker to be available 30 hours a week to answer these requests.  The bill is balanced to a solution that allows the public to know what is going on inside their government in a way that is both workable and protects the privacy of our constituents.”

In the House, no leadership spoke on the matter from the floor.  We posted statements from House leaders after the fact, but even that underscored the lack of leadership on this from the House Democratic Caucus.

No formal statement came out from the House Democratic Caucus at all.  Rather, the House Republican Caucus included a statement from Democratic Majority Leader Rep. Pat Sullivan in their release.

Speaker Frank Chopp has still not made a statement on the matter.

That’s not unusual on its face.  Speaker Chopp seldom makes public statements.

But, jamming through legislation to protect members requires leadership from the caucus.  This was a time to speak up, and in the House at least, that didn’t happen.


2.  The media can still move mountains

Heather Weiner, a partner at Moxie Media, put it this way in a commentary piece in The Stranger last week.

In what appears to be a well-coordinated campaign, newspapers across the state ran similar front page editorials. By the end of Tuesday, reporters and editorial boards echoed the same talking points—furthering amping up perceived public pressure on the state’s executive and legislative branches of government.

She hits this nail right on the head:  this was a prominent display of a coordinated public policy advocacy campaign.  Arguably, this was an issue in the public’s interest, and while that is certainly within the “lane” that the news media occupies, it was still an uncommon and exceptional display of political heft.

There are at least two ways this could go from here.  Given a taste for the efficacy of its advocacy, will the media continue to mobilize on issues in the public interest?  Or, will the “giant” grow frightened by its shadow, surprised at its own power, and diminish itself in the name of some idyllic and anachronistic idea of the role media should play?

I hope its the former, but I expect it will be the latter.

As someone else once argued, and which I’ll poorly paraphrase here, ‘The Seattle Times does more good for our civics in a day than most civic organizations do in a year.’

I agree with the sentiment.  Now, imagine if those institutions were willing to put their civic force to good use even more often.  What kind of public, civic conversation could we have?

A central challenge with media today is they continue to give equal weight to multiple sides of an argument.  However, our civics demand more than that.  This issue of transparency is a good example.  When one side is off by 10, and the other side is off by 10,000, it should be ok to say one side is really off!  That’s what happened here:  newspapers said, collectively, ‘This bill is wrong and should be vetoed.’

This was not a time for equal weight to two sides, one of which was wildly wrong.  As Weiner puts it:

“One can optimistically hope the media coalition will rally again around solving homelessness, funding our schools, overhauling our state’s tax structure, or strengthening gun laws.”

I’m hopeful the media builds on the activism and success from this experience.


3.  It is hypocritical to ignore local governments’ concerns but move expeditiously with legislative concerns.

The Association of Washington Cities has been working for years to address the burden created on local governments of the Public Records Act.  Their website is an archive of efforts that have progressed in fits and spurts for years.

Because cities, counties and other junior taxing authorities have all been working under the full implementation of the Public Records Act for years, they know the administrative pain of the law.  They have some ideas about how to update them for the 21st century.

To make changes in transparency that only apply to the state, and which don’t include input from the local jurisdictions that have complained about this law for years is bad policy, and imminently hypocritical.

An update to the PRA should apply to local governments, too.


4.  There are legitimate policy proposals that can exempt the legislature.  They should be debated fully and openly.

Imagine trying to pass smart, sensible gun legislation that is reportedly supported by more than 90% of your constituents, like stronger background checks or raising the age to by a hand gun to the age one needs to buy a rifle.

Now, imagine doing that with an NRA lobbyist making requests for your email correspondence, phone records, and calendars.  Imagine that there is a hint of a threat from the NRA.  Usually, the hint is not subtle, as in the case of this video released today telling politicians “Your time is running out.”

That’s the kind of subtle intimidation that gets a bit concerning when you are the target of the advocacy work.  When the public records request includes things like the time of your son’s doctor’s appointment, or a reminder to call your wife with a number attached, you can see how the concerns can grow.

That’s why there are a number of reasons why the legislature should consider unique and reasonable exemptions for legislative bodies under the PRA. Perhaps that means a delay of six months before records can be released, or not allowing a release of information regarding a specific bill that may still be under active consideration.

The task force announced today should provide the kind of forum wherein these exemptions might more fully be debated.


Bottom line:  Let’s learn from this experience.

While a new bill is out today to unify all three state branches of government under the same administration of state transparency laws, it’s probably smarter to take our time as a state, to update the transparency laws first passed in the 1970s, and to learn from all stakeholders in this process about what will work for Washington State in the 21st century.