Lawmakers, admit it: There’s no good reason for your public records exemption

With limited exceptions, you’re allowed to see just about everything government does in this state. From state agencies to your local port commission, if government does it, you can request to see it.

But there’s one big, glaring omission: The state Legislature.

If you request records from a lawmaker, you’re likely to be denied. That’s because in 1995, legislators amended the state public records law to largely carve themselves out of it. Most of their records – including their e-mails, and their calendars showing who they’ve met with – are kept from the public eye.

We hear some lame excuses for why the Legislature should be the one whopping exception to the public’s right to know. Legislators hear from constituents about sensitive topics, they say. It’ll cost money. The legal issues are complex.

All of those arguments are undercut by the fact that the same excuses could be made for all other levels of government, yet somehow they manage to comply. They all deal with contentious issues and private information – that’s why we write narrow exemptions to protect people’s privacy. There’s always a cost to providing public records – but transparent government is worth the cost.

Most of the time, you don’t hear arguments defending the Legislature’s exemption at all. Those who would prefer to keep it in place say little about it. They’d prefer the topic just fade away, as it has before.

Recognizing it’s wrong
Rep. Paul Graves (R-Fall City), for one, is determined not to let that happen again. The freshman lawmaker didn’t even realize until he took office that legislative records are locked down tight. “I was kind of flummoxed,” he told the Snoqualmie Valley Record. “I just assumed that all of my material would be public record.”

Graves is introducing a bill, the Legislative Transparency Act, to open up the Legislature’s records to public inspection. That would put lawmakers back under the letter and the spirit of our public records law, which states, “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

The people expect government to be transparent and accountable to them. In most every government office in this state, thanks to our voter-approved law, that’s true. We have every right to expect the Legislature to be transparent too.

There are many in Olympia who want to be spared the scrutiny. “Lawmakers, although they won’t say so publicly, enjoy having the exemption to the Public Records Act,” the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin said.

Removing the Legislature’s exemption will only happen if the public pressures lawmakers to act. It’s up to all of us to make sure they know we want the people’s sovereignty respected.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.