Washingtonians should be celebrating a new level of hard-won transparency as the Legislature convenes on Monday. But some lawmakers are still angling to weaken the state’s Public Records Act.
Legislators tried for years to evade the act’s disclosure requirements. Last month, the state Supreme Court affirmed legislators themselves are subject to the act, in a lawsuit brought by a coalition of media organizations. During the lawsuit, legislators passed a bill exempting themselves from the law. Outraged, more than 20,000 citizens asked the governor to veto the bill, which he did.
This ought to be settled. Legislative leaders on Thursday pledged to disclose public records and said they aren’t planning another attempt to weasel out of the rules. Nevertheless, several legislators have plans to gouge a massive new hole in the records act that would make it vastly more difficult for the public to hold public employees accountable.
This is being done under the guise of protecting people from identity theft, exploiting fears of cybercrime.
House Bill 1888, proposed by Reps. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, and Javier Valdez, D-Seattle, would prevent disclosure of state employee birth dates. That sounds innocuous, but birth dates are essential to identifying individuals. Truly sensitive personal information, such as Social Security numbers, cannot be disclosed.
Birth dates are routinely disclosed by the state — they’re on widely disseminated voter rolls. If exposing a birth date opened the door to thievery, virtually everyone could be victimized at this point. Yet rates of identity theft are declining nationally and have fallen since 2015 in Washington.
Fraud is a legitimate concern, but in this case it’s a smoke screen to hide public employees from the public. This is being done at the behest of unions feuding with the conservative Freedom Foundation over what information public employees receive about union options.
The Freedom Foundation is aggressively notifying public employees they have no obligation to pay union fees, a right affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus ruling. Unions are pressing legislators and voters to obscure the identity of public employees so the foundation can’t reach them. All sides should stand down. State leadership should defuse the situation by ensuring every employee receives clear, unbiased information about their options.
This matters because the public and press must know who the public employs to hold them accountable.
Birth dates were essential for this newspaper to identify 159 school coaches fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct from harassment to rape, at least 98 of whom were still coaching or teaching. The Coaches Who Prey series also found school officials failing to investigate or report them, enabling some to continue coaching elsewhere.
Because birth dates are public records, The Times could also identify at least 40 public university and college employees exploiting a loophole in state retirement laws. They were “double dipping,” with some collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars, at a time when lean budgets were forcing universities to cut programs and raise tuition.
Great progress has been made to bring transparency to Washington government. Don’t backslide with the misleading HB 1888.
GET INVOLVED: A hearing on the wrongheaded House Bill 1888 is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14, before the House Committee on State Government on Tribal Relations.