Sunshine Week shines light on lack of legislative transparency
Since this is national Sunshine Week, you will see lots of stories about open government and the importance of providing citizens with meaningful access to the activities of their government. Here is a sampling from the editorials across the state highlighting the need for legislative transparency reforms:
- A bad example of legislative ‘transparency’, Olympian
“In the waning days of the regular legislative session, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, a Democrat from Spokane, claimed the Legislature is much more transparent than it was when she entered the Legislature. Brown is wrong . . .”
- Sunshine and Clouds in Olympia, Kitsap Sun
“The bad news is that public access to information and hearings about legislation has been … challenging. There’s been a flurry of ‘title-only’ bills introduced and set for hearings, sometimes on short notice, and with no timely public information on their content. Members of the public deserve better than that — and if they want to get it, they’d better say so this fall to those who seek to represent them in the Legislature.”
- It’s National Sunshine Week, but state’s transparency forecast remains cloudy, Longview Daily News
“Shutting down the Sunshine Committee less than three years after it was formed is as difficult to justify as that legislative exemption from public disclosure. It proved too much for legislators to pull off in the light of day. The Sunshine Committee was taken off the bill’s termination list — less than a week ago. Sadly, that remains this legislative session’s single accomplishment on behalf of government transparency.“
- State government clings to double standard, News Tribune
“Is it any wonder that city and county officials clamor for relief from open meetings and records laws when they see their counterparts in state government behave as they do? State officials profess a belief in public disclosure. They’re just not sure it always applies to them. Lawmakers in particular hold themselves apart from the state’s sunshine laws. They caucus in secret for any reason and insist that their correspondence is somehow constitutionally protected from public dissemination. They also apparently reserve the right to skip public process in the interests of expediency.”
- Public input? Who cares?, Everett Herald
“With increasing audacity, key state legislators are taking control from the people and seizing it for themselves. Amid the difficult process of closing a $2.8 billion budget shortfall, they’ve skirted, waived or ignored the public’s right to know what they’re up to and comment on it.”
One potential solution to this problem is for lawmakers to allow citizens to vote on meaningful constitutional transparency protections. Such a constitutional amendment could:
- Add the preamble of the state’s public records act to Article 1. This would help re-enforce this transparency intent for any wayward court. The preamble reads:
“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected. In the event of conflict between the provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this chapter shall govern.”
- Add a new section to Article 2 which would require 72-hour public notification before any bill could receive a public hearing. While the requirement currently exists in legislative rules, it is often waived.
- Amend Article 2, Section 19 to prohibit title only bills. No public hearing or vote should occur on a “ghost bill.”
- Amend Article 2, Section 22 to prohibit votes on final passage until the final version of the bill to be approved has been publicly available for 24-hours.
This type of constitutional sunshine protection would not be unique to Washington if enacted. Florida’s Constitution (Article 3, Section 19) requires a 72-hour public review period for appropriations bills before they can be voted on. Hawaii’s Constitution (Article 3, Section 15) requires a 48-hour review period before any bill can be voted on for final passage.
The question that remains, will the Legislature provide the people the opportunity to enforce meaningful transparency on the legislative process?
Jason Mercier is the director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center. He serves on the Executive Committee of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force and is a contributing editor of the Heartland Institute’s Budget & Tax News. Mercier also serves as treasurer on the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and was an adviser to the 2002 Washington State Tax Structure Committee.