What are state lawmakers hiding?

Senate Bill 6617 is a direct assault on open public records in Washington state

— What are they trying to hide from us?

On Wednesday, outside of the normal legislative processes, the state Senate took up a bill that essentially exempts members from state public records laws.

Senate Bill 6617 would generally exempt members of the Legislature from having to turn over records on employees, harassment claims, journals, travel logs and receipts, meeting transcripts, you name it. Instead of following state law — and last month’s Thurston County Superior Court in a public records lawsuit — two senators have pushed forward a last-minute bill to give them political and other cover from the law, and taxpayers.

No, they weren’t both Democrats. And no, they weren’t both Republicans.

In fact, the two senators looking to circumvent public disclosure are none other than Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, a Democrat from Maury Island, and Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Ritzville Republican.

The last-minute power play, if it passes the Senate and House and is signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, would force you and I to ask the Secretary of the Senate or House for records that individual lawmakers may hold. In doing so, it would give political cover to individual lawmakers as well as the Senate and House as a whole.

This move is a direct assault on government transparency, and a shot across the bow of the state Constitution.

Our Constitution says in Article I Section I that “All political power is inherent in the people, and governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and are established to protect and maintain individual rights.” But that power is inherent only when the people are able to monitor the activities of those they elect.

When it comes to many government agencies these days, I feel like Diogenes the Cynic.

Diogenes was a Greek philosopher who died more than 2300 years ago. Greek history has it that he used to walk around during daylight hours carrying a lantern. When asked why, he would tell people he was just looking for an honest man. History has it that he couldn’t find any.

Well, if this bill comes to pass and be signed into law, I may have to agree with Diogenes, at least when it comes to the lawmakers who vote for it.

I’ve always been impressed with Sen. Schoesler’s efforts on behalf of our state, and specifically Eastern Washington. But sponsoring a bill such as this brings my experience into question.

Coalition for Open Government Director Toby Nixon called the move on the bill “despicable,” an “outrage,” and a “ridiculous assault on transparency.” Furthermore, he calls the bill “TERRIBLE.”

I couldn’t agree more.

This bill was introduced and moved after several legislative deadlines have passed. It came from behind closed doors, with virtually no input from the people who own the records — you and I, the residents and taxpayers of Washington state.

Lawmakers and their employees work for us. The records they hold were bought and paid for by you and I. And we should not be given the runaround by lawmakers who, it would appear, may have something to hide.

Over the coming days, I’ll be watching to see which lawmakers in both the Senate and House vote for this bill. I’ll see who is trying to give themselves an exemption. And I’ll remember it when they come up for re-election. I urge you to keep tabs on them, too.

If your lawmaker votes to give themselves a pass on public records disclosure. Then it’s time for you to give them a pass home and out of public office.

In the meantime, I’m going to head to the local hardware store to see if I can find a lantern bright enough to illuminate the darkness of backroom politics in Olympia.

— Roger Harnack is the publisher and editor of The Daily Sun. Email him at rharnack@dailysunnews.com.


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