PUBLIC, n. The negligible factor in problems of legislation.
-- From The Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce.
onsidering a controversial bill, a curious point was made twice at a joint legislative committee hearing in Washington state this past week. Sen. Sam Hunt, Democrat of Olympia, made a simple admission: “None of us had a hand in writing this.”
“This,” as few people yet know, is a bill to amend Washington State’s Public Records Act to exempt much of the work of the legislature itself from the eyes of the people--the voters who elected them.
Few know about the bill because the legislature didn’t want them to. To avoid public comment, they declared it an emergency measure, and the bill (SB 6617) went from draft to final passage in less than two days.
“We’re learning about it as we go along, too,” Hunt bemoaned, early in a one-hour hearing. Only a handful of witnesses spoke--by design.
affling? Well, context here is vital. The bill is an act of legislative sore loser-ship. State senators and representatives have been fighting a lawsuit brought by a long list of news organizations. The suit’s goal was to get a judicial ruling on whether or not the legislature is subject to the records act. Pretty straightforward. In a January decision, a Superior Court judge agreed with the media, unequivocally ruling that the legislature and its members are obligated to follow the PRA’s rules.
But the legislature, spending our tax dollars, moved to appeal that ruling to the state Supreme Court. Knowing they were headed for another loss, bipartisanship suddenly broke out in Olympia among lawmakers less concerned about transparency than their ability to win reelection…or advance to higher office. The bill is a cynical end-run around any meddling justices who might side with the media. If the new bill passed, no need for an appeal—a superseding act would be in place. (“Game over,” sneered the weasels of the Capitol “we made new rules while you were playing by the old ones.”)
While Hunt claimed, “none of us had a hand in writing this,” that didn’t stop 41 senators from voting to pass it a day later. Only seven dissented. Within minutes (no exaggeration), the House did the same, by a vote of 83-14. There was no partisan divide -- Democrats and Republicans alike voted to draw the drapes.
So SB 6617, which ought to be titled “The Legislature’s Secrecy and Self-Protection Act,” passed with veto-proof majorities. Still, Gov. Jay Inslee ought to exercise his right to reject it, if only to force lawmakers in both chambers to go on the record a second time opposing the public’s right to know what they’re doing.
In addition, a veto by Inslee would be a fitting nod to the upcoming national Sunshine Week (March 11-17), which celebrates and elevates public information laws. The irony drips.
ut who am I kidding? The legislators have won, and they know they won’t pay a price at the ballot box, given the louder noises in this era of outrage. They know we inhabit a Trumpian dystopia where few can bother to notice a weakening of the public records act, as they duck the aftershocks from the Bloviator-in-Chief’s Twitter account.
H.L. Mencken once said, “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”
That’s certainly true for this author today. But at least I--and you--can make our shame known in the primary and general elections. Let’s withhold our vote from any legislator who voted for this terrible bill, or any candidate unwilling to make its repeal a priority in the 2019 session.
Editor’s note: for those reading in Washington state, here’s a list of how your legislators voted.