Legislators in Washington state are set to discuss a new bill looking to bring some highly-anticipated sunshine into the legislative branch.
Senator Jamie Pederson (D-Seattle) introduced SB 5784, a new bill calling for the removal of the Legislatures exemption to the public records act since 1972. The new proposal comes just a year after Governor Jay Inslee vetoed a reactionary bill placing additional restrictions on legislative records. Although the proposed bill is still in its first stages and will find itself in public hearing next week, Pederson hopes it to be a step forward in state transparency.
“The idea is to find a reasonable middle ground that moves the legislature substantially where our constituents want us to be in terms of transparency, but also protect our ability to do our job,” said Pederson to MuckRock.
But the middle ground Pederson hopes to achieve strikes yet another cord in the states ongoing public records battle between government and transparency advocates. Despite calling for the legislatures inclusion in the public records act, the bill creates three “narrowly-tailored” set of exemptions for the government branch. Whistleblower information remains protected, including allegations of improper government action. The content of constituent communication with lawmakers will remain public, but private identification information would be redacted. The biggest point of contention comes from the bills “deliberative process” exemption blocking preliminary draft bills, staff analysis, and communications between lawmakers or staff discussing legislation.
“I absolutely believe that if every idea good or bad that a legislator has made had to be public, it would substantially reduce the creativity and willingness of people to entertain other ideas,” said Pederson. “If you can’t spit ball solutions to problems without knowing that everyone is going to know what you’re considering, the range of ideas will be dramatically narrow. It is really bad for government.”
Last year, the state found itself on the brink of a controversial transparency bill blocking legislative records after a Supreme Court Judge ruled that legislative leaders are subject to the public records act. As a result, a new legislative taskforce was formed to discuss crucial fixes to the state’s public records act.
In its 2019 Legislative Priorities, the Washington Coalition for Open Government list legislative records as its top priority. In an email, WCOG President Toby Nixon noted that the bill is generally heading in the right direction - but it’s not there yet.
“This bill does not treat legislative records the same as other public records, but has many differences. It hides the identity of virtually everyone who seeks to influence our laws, except registered lobbyists. The expanded deliberative process exemption continues to hide nearly all of the discussion of policy alternatives and the reasons why a particular alternative is chosen. This leaves it very difficult for voters to understand whether their elected representatives are doing a good job, thoroughly studying the issues and coming to the same conclusion that the voter would have come to if presented with the same information” wrote Nixon.
“We need to figure out how to pull the institution into the 21st century and actualize our current expectations of government, our knowledge of how our legislature functions, and what things it needs to protect from public disclosure,” added Pederson.
SB 5784 is tentatively scheduled for a hearing on February 13th, 2019. You can read the full bill embedded below.
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