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Lord of Open Government: One Standard to Rule Them All

When it comes to complying with Washington’s renowned open government laws, the Legislature has maintained it should be held to a different standard than local governments. This may change thanks to a new lawsuit filed by several media outlets. As reported by the AP:

A coalition of news organizations led by The Associated Press is suing the Washington Legislature over its assertion that state lawmakers are not required to turn over daily schedules, emails, text messages and other materials related to their work.

The lawsuit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court on Tuesday, challenges lawmakers’ claim that language they added more than two decades ago to Washington’s public records law excludes them from stricter disclosure rules that apply to officials across the state, from school board members and county commissioners to agency heads.

Elected officials in the Washington House and Senate are withholding hundreds of highly important records, the lawsuit says, depriving the public of information essential to knowing what is going on in state government.

‘The public has a right to know what its elected officials are doing behind closed doors,’ AP Managing Editor Brian Carovillano said.

Along with being an unjustified double-standard when it comes to complying with the state’s open government laws, the secrecy that the Legislature operates under has had real consequences for good public policy. This problem was on clear display during the final hours of the 2017 3rd Special Session when the 2017-19 budget was adopted.

This is why Washington Policy Center has been a longtime advocate for making the Legislature play by the same open government rules as everyone else in the state. As recommended by our Policy Guide:

Nearly all local government records and internal communications are subject to public disclosure, but members of the legislature and their staff claim legislative privilege and do not routinely release emails and other internal policy related records to the public.

This double standard understandably irritates local government officials, who must operate under a different standard of disclosure. It is also a disservice to citizens, who are denied the fullest disclosure of the records and activities of their state lawmakers. To lead by example, the legislature should subject itself to all the requirements of the Public Record Act and Open Public Meetings Act on the same basis as other public entities in Washington.

The Legislature should also adopt several other transparency reforms:

It is time for there to be one Washington when it comes to compliance with the people’s right to know.

Jason Mercier is the Director of the Center for Government Reform at Washington Policy Center and is based in the Tri-Cities. He serves on the boards of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and Candidate Verification, and was an advisor to the 2002 Washington State Tax Structure Committee. Jason is an ex-officio for the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce.