Washington’s unprecedented coronavirus crisis highlights how much ordinary citizens rely on sound governmental decision-making. Transparency about how our elected leaders respond to such emergencies has never been more vital to accountability in governance.
The state’s visionary decision to create TVW, which turned 25 this year, continues to provide unparalleled access to watch how Washington state government carries out its duties. Sunshine Week, which runs from March 15-21, commemorates Americans’ right to access public information, and civically engaged Washington residents should take the occasion to be thankful for how much TVW contributes to good governance. The public-affairs outlet, offering unedited coverage of Washington state government, politics and public policy, has nimbly evolved with the information age to be an invaluable resource for both television and internet audiences.
Just last week, TVW broadcast statewide lawmakers’ crucial bipartisan decision to double state coronavirus funding from $100 million to $200 million scant hours before deadline to end the Legislature’s 2020 session. Dipping so deeply into the state’s rainy day fund as the national economy careens toward a potential crisis called for immediate explanation. TVW made it possible for taxpayers statewide to hear why lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the much-needed expansion of emergency resources.
From its first moments on air in 1995, TVW enabled as-it-happens access to the highest levels of state government from far beyond the Olympia capitol campus. The channel launched with a broadcast of a death-penalty appeal before the Washington Supreme Court; gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Legislature’s sessions, live broadcasts of governors’ public events and other state-level actions followed. The live broadcast can sometimes test a viewer’s attention span — founder Denny Heck, now in Congress, has joked about its potential as “a cure for insomnia” — but its on-demand web archives also have become an invaluable resource for citizens, journalists, attorneys and researchers.
TVW’s ongoing operations are funded by public money and philanthropy. The Legislature’s biennial appropriation to pay for the unedited live broadcasts shows an ongoing commitment to transparency every state should emulate.
Washington lawmakers themselves should hold to this standard of transparency, as well. But repeatedly in recent years, their votes to scale back the public’s access to records demonstrate how easily the importance of full governmental transparency can be disregarded. The vetoed 2018 bill that would have exempted legislative records from public access is but one example. This year’s approval of House Bill 1888 to remove government-employee dates of birth from public records — making it harder to identify individuals — is another attack on the access voters approved in 1972’s Public Records Act.
Washington will always need leadership that will reliably champion governmental transparency and accountability. TVW gives voters across the state powerful access to see how well that essential mission is being fulfilled.