Open government forecast: Cloudy for Sunshine Week

The OlympianMarch 18, 2014 

A TVW camera crew works through a rainstorm to cover a rally on the Capitol steps in February 2013.

TONY OVERMAN; STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The 2014 Legislature had several opportunities to make state government more open and accessible to the public. Sadly, it passed on most of them.

State lawmakers could have set an example for their congressional colleagues by approving a modest bill to improve campaign finance disclosure. Sen. Karen Fraser co-sponsored the bill, with strong bipartisan support, that would have better informed voters about who is funding the campaigns of elected officials and ballot measures.

Millions of dollars flowed into the state last year to fight statewide ballot initiatives and promote a higher minimum wage in the city of SeaTac, and it will again this fall. But voters don’t know who is behind this money, because it comes from nonprofit organizations that hide behind a social welfare faade that shields donors from public disclosure requirements.

And that wasn’t the only disappointment for open government advocates.

Washingtonians rely on TVW – our version of C-SPAN – to watch and listen to their state representatives and those who testify on legislation at public hearings. That is especially true for residents of Eastern Washington.

Broadcasts of live debates are endangered, however, because TVW’s 20-year-old analog equipment is failing. Yet lawmakers refused a small $2.8 million capital request to update the station’s equipment.

Lawmakers also refused to act on a bill to amend the state constitution to make the Governor’s Office and the Legislature subject to the Public Disclosure Act.

Similarly, legislators failed to pass a measure to improve public notice requirements for committee hearings on bills. Many times during the 2014 session, committees held public hearings late at night and with little notice.

It’s no surprise that these hearings elicited little if any public participation. But that was probably the point.

And while more legislators are expressing interest in allowing citizens to testify at hearings via video links rather than having to travel to Olympia, no real progress was made on this issue, either.

It’s even more egregious that lawmakers are frequently called to vote on bills handed to them with just hours or minutes before final passage. For example, how many legislators do you think read the 2014 supplemental budget during the six hours provided to them before voting?

Of course, it would take more time to give adequate public notice of hearings, and to give legislators sufficient time to read bills before final passage. That might mean a bit more overtime for legislative sessions. We think public participation and open government are worth the extra time and expense.

There was a lone bright spot for government transparency this year. Lawmakers passed Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s bill to require those subject to the Public Records Act and the Open Public Meetings Act to receive training.

The bill will reduce the tension between government entities and those who make requests for public records by clarifying what is and what isn’t expected of government offices under the laws.

We’re thankful for this small favor. But we lament the long list of missed opportunities, because a healthy democracy depends on an informed electorate.

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