Open records law should apply to Legislature

There were efforts once again this year to weaken Washington’s landmark Public Records Act. Tweaking it to help a few cities inconvenienced by the law is the wrong emphasis.

If the act needs major changes, the overhaul should expand the law’s reach, not limit its impact.

The state Legislature has long exempted itself from provisions of the voter-approved records law.

Of course, at different times the secretary of the Senate and clerk of the House have fully complied with requests for records on grounds that its leaders saw a public interest in the release.

Requests for emails of lawmakers, for example, are often released — with the caveat that it is up to individual lawmakers to turn over the requested records. Reports of investigations into conduct by legislative members have also been released on grounds a public interest is served.

That reasoning has even been applied posthumously; one time the Senate released several years of emails from the late former Senate Republican leader Jim West of Spokane.

But our Legislature has always insisted that it was never agreeing that the public has a legal right to demand the records of its members’ communications.

The fact of legislatures bypassing their own states’ records laws is not unique to Washington, as The Associated Press pointed out in a story for national Sunshine Week. The event runs March 13-19 this year and celebrates a commitment by news organizations to free and open government.

The AP survey of 50 statehouses found that more legislatures denied email records this year than turned them over. It said governors tended to be more responsive.

Top leaders in our own House and Senate — from both major parties — rejected requests for their emails and daily calendars. These legislators included Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville; Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island; House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle; and House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office responded by releasing the requested calendar and 39 relevant emails, which AP described as generally uneventful.

Simply leaving the interpretation to individual legislators is not good policy. Just look up the road to Pierce County, where the prosecutor decided he should pick which of his cellphone texts were fair game for disclosure. Wrong move, according to the state Supreme Court, which ordered the release of the messages.

There is zero chance that our current Legislature can take up an issue this substantial and important in special session.

But voters this fall can start making a difference by asking candidates how openly they are prepared to run the state lawmaking process in 2017.

This line of questioning can include how the candidates plan to deal with legislative hearings. Will they give fair notice to the public of bills to be heard? Will more than a day’s notice be made for the contents of hearings? Will the content of proposed bills or substitute be made public before hearings begin? Will lawmakers share their emails with interest groups and constituents upon request — or keep secrets?

We intend to ask those kinds of questions. You should too.