Editorial: Let light shine on lawmakers’ emails, records

By The Herald Editorial Board

It was worth a shot.

Earlier this year, The Seattle Times and public radio’s Northwest News Network, seeking some insights into this year’s all-important emphasis on public education funding and the state budget, asked key legislators to share their calendars and relevant emails with the news outlets and the public.

The requests for those records were made to each of the Legislature’s four corners: Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp of Seattle, Senate Democratic Minority Leader Sharon Nelson of Maury Island, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville and Republican House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen of Snohomish.

The common response from one legislative attorney, NWNews reported, was: “The Legislature does not have any public records that are responsive to your request.”

That’s not a lie, although there are presumably hundreds of such calendar entries and emails related to education funding and the budget. And those records could have provided the public a greater understanding of what lawmakers have discussed in terms of tax revenue, loopholes and budget cuts, what the sticking points are and where things stand.

But none of those calendars, emails or other correspondence are public records. Unlike public officials for cities, counties, school boards and even state agencies, members of the Legislature don’t have to comply with the state’s Public Records Act, which was created by citizen initiative in 1972. The records in lawmakers’ possession are not considered to be public, a definition that was in place before the Public Records Act became law. Legislators can release records voluntarily, but state law does not require it when a request is made.

Lawmakers have not been eager to forfeit the power to keep their communications under wraps.

Toby Nixon, a former Republican state representative and now president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, told the Times that he once drafted a bill that would have ended the exemption and was in the process of filing it when he was told by a House attorney to withdraw it or risk losing his leadership position on a House committee.

Nixon withdrew the bill.

“I still think that the Legislature should have to live under the same rules as every other public employee,” he told the Times.

Some lawmakers have objected to the complications and costs involved in opening up legislative communications to the Public Records Act. But the House and Senate this year have passed bills to improve the records process, changes that should help local governments and state agencies fulfill requests and better compensate them for the costs in responding to requests.

Had lawmakers been required to respond to public records requests, they might have had a better idea of what local governments have faced and settled on solutions sooner than this year.

About a dozen other states, including Idaho and Oregon, do not exempt state legislators from their public records laws. One Idaho lawmaker was considering a bill that would have reversed Idaho’s law and blocked all legislators’ emails, texts and other communications from public disclosure. Ironically, a public records request shed light on his proposal, which didn’t make it out of committee.

Beyond simple fairness — making state lawmakers live with a law with which all other public officials are required to comply — opening up those records would better inform the public and result in better government and better legislation.

A look at lawmakers’ calendars would show who they are meeting with and where some of their information is coming from. Emails could reveal lawmakers’ thinking on potential or pending legislation, perhaps allowing the public an earlier opportunity to weigh in with their support or opposition and offer suggestions that could improve a bill.

In brief statements to the Times, both Sen. Chopp and Rep. Kristiansen said that after this year’s session they were willing to review how the Public Records Act applies to lawmakers. The reforms that legislators passed this year set the table for those discussions.

Open government advocates like to say that sunshine is the best disinfectant, but that sunlight also can help good ideas grow. The Legislature needs that light for both purposes.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Monday, July 22

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Scott Spahr, Generation Engineering Manager at Snohomish County PUD, points to a dial indicating 4 megawatts of power production from one of two Francis turbine units at the Henry M. Jackson Powerhouse on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023, near Sultan, Washington. Some of the water that passes through units 3 and 4 — the two Francis turbines — is diverted to Lake Chaplain, which supplies water to Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Editorial: Amber King best suited for PUD’s 2nd District seat

Among three solid candidates, King’s knowledge of utilities and contracts will serve ratepayers well.

Brooks: Democrats must provide an answer to MAGA’s promises

For Democrats to succeed, they need to offer people a future of both security and progress.

Krugman: For Trump, once again, it’s carnage in America

Ignoring the clear decline in crime rates for much of the country, Trump basks in thoughts of mayhem.

Krugman: It’s not just Trump that J.D. Vance has flipped on

The GOP’s vice presidential nominee has shifted position on the white working-class folks he came from.

Comment: Blaming media a poor repsonse to political violence

Conspiracy and violent rhetoric holds no specific party identification but seeks only to distract.

Former President Donald Trump, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, speaks during a campaign event in Doral, Fla., July 9, 2024. The Biden campaign has attacked Trump’s ties to the conservative policy plan that would amass power in the executive branch, though it is not his official platform. (Scott McIntyre/The New York York Times)
Comment: Project 2025’s aim is to institutionalize Trumpism

A look at the conservative policy behind Project 2025 and the think tank that thought it up.

Vote 2024. US American presidential election 2024. Vote inscription, badge, sticker. Presidential election banner Vote 2024, poster, sign. Political election campaign symbol. Vector Illustration
Editorial: Return Wagoner and Low to 39th Disrict seats

‘Workhorse’ Republicans, both have sponsored successful solution-oriented legislation in each chamber.

A law enforcement officer surveys the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, the site of the Republican National Convention, on July 14, 2024. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)
Editorial: Weekend’s violence should steel resolve in democracy

Leaders can lower the temperature of their rhetoric. We can choose elections over violence.

A graphic show the Port of Everett boundary expansion proposed in a ballot measure to voters in the Aug. 6 primary election. (Port of Everett).
Editorial: Case made to expand Port of Everett across county

The port’s humming economic engine should be unleashed to bring jobs, opportunity to all communities.

Editorial cartoons for Sunday, July 21

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Forum: How much do we really know about ‘bus stop people’?

Our assumptions about people, often fall short of accuracy, yet we justify our divisions based on them.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.