Impeachment proceedings and other dramas in Washington, D.C., are increasing voter cynicism and concerns about public officials’ behavior.
This presents an opportunity for Washington’s Legislature and its new leadership, including House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, to model superior ethics, transparency and accountability. Legislators have several ways to demonstrate these values and show voters they’re better than the other Washington.
One way is by willfully complying with the state’s landmark Public Records Act. Citizens created the law in 1972, during another period of deep distrust in government. As things worsened in D.C., Washington state government became more transparent, creating strong rules for disclosure of public records, lobbying and campaign spending.
Legislators are still trying to figure out how to fully comply with the act after the state Supreme Court affirmed they were subject to the law. They’re also being pressured by powerful supporters to weaken the act and the public’s ability to hold its public employees accountable, with House Bill 1888. Voters should pay close attention: This is a test of whether politicians care more about good government and public safety, or entrenched special interests that want opaque government.
Another way is to strengthen state ethics rules, to restrict the revolving door between public service and lobbying.
Washington state’s rules are much weaker than federal rules, which require a one-year cooling off period before House members can lobby and two years for senators. Similar rules also apply to senior federal agency officials.
Proposals to bring state ethics policy at least up to the federal level, with comparable cooling-off periods, have failed repeatedly. That’s enabled situations like former Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond resigning, only to start working for a major transportation contractor six months later. Last year, state Sen. Guy Palumbo resigned and immediately became a lobbyist and policy director for Amazon.com.
“Washington state is falling woefully behind most other states in not having any type of cooling-off period,” said state Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way.
Lawmakers are busy during this short session, but they’ve had plenty of time to consider these common-sense rules. The rules must be applied to both elected officials and state-agency leadership.
The House bill says it well: “The ability of a former public officer or employee in state government to be paid to influence state government actions immediately after leaving state service creates the appearance to the public of special favor, unfair access, and conflicts of interest.”
It would also look bad if legislators killed such a bill — keeping their options open to cash in on public service — and gutted the Public Records Act to help big campaign supporters.
Voters and democracy want more ethical, transparent government. The last thing they need in Washington is for the Legislature to emulate the swamp in Washington, D.C.