“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.”
That declaration is repeated more than once in Washington’s public disclosure and open meetings laws.
It’s a nice ideal. In practice, it isn’t working so well.
With increasing audacity, key state legislators are taking control from the people and seizing it for themselves. Amid the difficult process of closing a $2.8 billion budget shortfall, they’ve skirted, waived or ignored the public’s right to know what they’re up to and comment on it.
The latest example came Thursday. See where this registers on your outrage meter:
The Senate Ways and Means Committee scheduled an afternoon public hearing on a substitute bill to create a state income tax. But the amendment on which the public was supposed to comment wasn’t even available until the hearing began.
This legislative chicanery is right in line with the recent introduction of “title-only” bills, proposals that go through a public hearing and are passed by a committee, even though they include no details. Those are added later, when there’s no opportunity for public comment. It’s a blatantly underhanded way to avoid scrutiny of a controversial idea.
And in another blow to transparency, a House panel voted to eliminate the state’s Sunshine Committee, created in 2007 to strengthen the state’s open records laws. The Senate voted overwhelmingly to keep the Sunshine Committee in place, and there’s still time for the House Ways and Means Committee to restore it. We strongly urge it to do so, if only to keep some measure of faith with the public.
All this is on top of state legislators’ continued resistance to calls for them to open their own records, such as e-mails, to public review — a requirement of every local legislative body in the state.
Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center, a leading transparency watchdog, has become so frustrated that he has proposed a constitutional amendment mandating a 72-hour waiting period between the introduction of a bill and a public hearing on it, outlawing title-only bills, and giving lawmakers 24 hours to read a bill before voting on final passage.
Because constitutional amendments require supermajority legislative support, we won’t hold our breath. We do, however, share Mercier’s frustration at lawmakers’ disdain for public input. Citizens, we suspect, do too.