Fundamental, or on the Chopping Block?

By February 24, 2015July 30th, 2015No Comments

Our state’s Public Records Act, long a point of pride for Washingtonians, opens with a flourish: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them.”

This month in SIDEBAR, an exclusive monthly dispatch from inside our newsroom just for InvestigateWest members, Kim Drury calls up the folks in charge of that Act:

For decades, the Public Records Act has protected Washingtonians’ right to know and the Public Disclosure Commission has been there to ensure that the law’s provisions are met.

The Records Act, along with the Washington State Open Public Meetings Act, has long been a point of pride in the state. In 2001, then Attorney General and later two-term Governor Christine Gregoire said that “… people are entitled to pretty much any document that comes to my mind.” From 2004 through 2008 Washington was ranked first in the nation for its campaign finance disclosure rules. Today, Kim Abel, President of the League of Women Voters of Washington is still willing to say that Washington is at the forefront in the nation for open government.

Now cuts threaten the Public Disclosure Commission’s work. Three of 18 positions may be eliminated, and there is no money budgeted to keep up with new technology.

Of course, the access to public records that these laws promise is the bread and butter of investigative journalism. Behind nearly every story we’ve reported on at InvestigateWest were hours and hours of sifting through troves of government emails, data, transcripts and other documents to glean the who, what, when and where of how a government decision was made.

Good government interests depend on public disclosure rules too. Nonpartisan organizations such as the League of Women Voters follow the money — telling us who is giving how much to which elected official and who is paying for which lobbyist. (The recent Olympia contretemps by Sen. Pam Roach demonstrated that the laws make a difference, if not necessarily as intended: she wouldn’t allow a group of business people to finish their testimony at a public hearing, scolding them because, via public records, she found that they had given her election opponent a campaign donation.)

The potential cuts were announced in December in Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed spending plan.

Surprisingly, both the agency director and the Commission chair went loudly public with their complaints about the Governor’s budget proposal. That kind of chutzpah is highly unusual for a state agency. But considering that this is a state agency with few organized advocates and a budget controlled by those they regulate — the Governor, the House and the Senate — raising the alarm outside the normal channels may have been the only option.

I called the PDC for an update and reached Lori Anderson, its communication officer.

Is there any news?

“No,” she told me.

This is a state media contact being clear and unambiguous.

“All we have to go on is the Governor’s proposed budget and there’s nothing to indicate it will change,” she added.

According to Anderson, the cuts mean that the PDC will not have enough people to enforce the state’s public disclosure laws. And not investing in new technology means that the state agency that was supposed to open up government and increase transparency will, instead, not be plugging into social media anytime soon nor will its Website work for mobile devices. Not good news for anyone who believes that disclosure and accountability are some of the last remaining tools to control the influence of campaign money.

Not good news either for the PDC. With fewer staff and old technology, it will nevertheless still be responsible for administering and enforcing one of the most exhaustive disclosure laws in the country. Their work? Not only tackling campaign disclosure but also ensuring that candidates file accurate personal financial statements, monitoring political advertising, tracking and enforcing campaign contribution limits and overseeing lobbyist spending.

Back In 1972, alarmed at the lack of public accountability on the influence of campaign donations, the League of Women Voters led the successful statewide ballot initiative to pass what was then called the Public Disclosure Act. Today, facing a barrage of priorities in the legislature from schools to housing mental health patients, the League’s Abel says that her 22 volunteer lobbyists In Olympia are spread thin; they know the PDC budget isn’t adequate but haven’t yet weighed in.

“These are difficult budget years in the state,” Abel says.

The PDC budget will likely be decided by the Senate Ways and Means Committee and House Appropriations Committee late in the legislative session.

Jason Alcorn

Jason Alcorn

Jason is InvestigateWest's associate director. A veteran of technology projects and online strategy for the nonprofit sector, he is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and Graduate School of Journalism.

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