The Washington Legislature keeps itself exempt from the state Public Records Act. This means that emails of lawmakers are not always disclosed upon request.
It is up to individual lawmakers to decide which records to release. This is an absurd policy.
Yet it is one that has persisted for decades since voters approved Initiative 276 in 1972. That formalized the open records and meetings laws, but the Legislature ensured that it could operate under an older statute that was less binding.
In past years, lawmakers have agreed to release emails — sometimes without hesitation. But this year, the House and Senate have declined to release emails of key lawmakers in House and Senate leadership that would show who is putting pressure on them — and in what way — over the school funding issue that could require a several billion dollar tax increase.
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Records could lend insight into what lawmakers are really thinking on the issues.
The Seattle Times and Northwest Public Radio tested the House and Senate’s openness this year by requesting email communications on school funding from Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville; Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island; House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle; and House Republican Leader Dan Kristiansen of Snohomish. The news organizations also requested lawmakers’ calendars.
But all requests were flatly denied, according to a news report last weekend in the Times. The story cited an Associated Press survey from 2016 that indicated at least a dozen other states require their legislatures to release at least some or all of their emails and calendar items.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Seattle Democrat, has suggested in the past that our state lawmakers should be subject to the law that local governments and state agencies must obey.
There is little justification for doing otherwise.
In this year of tax hikes and educational policy, this is more acutely true. It would be good to know what kinds of threats or requests are being made by wealthy technocrats, business owners and teachers unions — all of which have a stake in the outcome. And it would be valuable to know what Schoesler and Chopp, in particular, are telling their campaign donors, who likely are calling in favors over this pivotal, history issue.
Ferguson’s Republican predecessor, Rob McKenna, has also raised questions as to why lawmakers want to treat themselves differently.
The state’s Sunshine Committee, which McKenna created after his election as AG in 2004, recommended in a nearly unanimous vote in 2009 to ask that lawmakers’ special status be ended.
“Every other legislative body in the state of Washington is fully subject to the Public Records Act. There is no principled reason why the state legislature should be exempt,” the committee’s report to the Legislature said.
Ferguson, a Democrat, then pushed for the idea after taking office in 2013. He gave up on the idea quickly when he realized that lawmakers were going to deep-six his idea.
But the Legislature should give another chew on that recommendation.
As the Sunshine Committee said, there is no principled reason to exempt lawmakers’ letters and emails from records law.
What’s changed since 2009? Nothing much — except the growing influence of money in politics. And the growing cowardice of our leaders.
It could take a while to persuade lawmakers to hold themselves accountable. But if the Legislature wants to assure us about what its leaders are up to, they all need to release the requested emails and calendars immediately.
If they want us to stop thinking the worst, there is no other option. If they don’t change the law, then voters may need to do it for them. That is, after all, how I-276 got passed. The people tired of inaction and took it into their own hands.
Washington lawmakers, open your windows and doors. Let in the sun.