When I talk to constituents in the 20th District about issues affecting our communities and state, many have expressed to me a deep distrust in our governing institutions. This problem is not unique to our region: trust in government has been eroding for decades. In fact, the Pew Research Center has been consistently polling Americans on this question since 1958, and the trend should concern all of us: trust in government peaked in 1964, when 77% of Americans surveyed said they trust the government to do what is right always or most of the time. The percentage of Americans who said the same as of May 1, 2022, was only 20%.
There are, no doubt, myriad reasons for this sharp downturn, including government scandals, the internet and the rise of social media, the decline of civic institutions, and so on. A dispute over whether the Washington State Legislature has “legislative privilege” to not share certain information, decades of one political party control, and the growing number of Public Records Act (PRA) exemptions contributed to a growing view that government should be more transparent.
As someone who served in local government, I know that people are more likely to trust the official who lives in their neighborhood, and whose kids are on the same baseball team, than someone 3,000 miles away. That likely explains higher distrust for our federal government than our state government.
Here in Washington, however, it’s easy to see why citizens are becoming increasingly cynical. We’ve had one party rule for more than a generation, and those holding the reins of power are beginning to forget that they’re public servants, not rulers. Without balance and accountability, concerns over “absolute power” corrupting grow.
Nearly three-quarters of Washington voters in 1972 supported Initiative 276, which made state, county, and city government records publicly available, with few exceptions. After the initiative passed, the PRA contained only 10 exemptions from public disclosure. Today, a half-century later, more than 500 exceptions exist, including five more this year. In other words, the exceptions are becoming the rule.
Everyday Washingtonians – of all political persuasions – want government to be open, transparent, and accountable, and they’re becoming frustrated with our state’s backsliding on transparency. They want to know how the sausage is made. They want to know what the people they elect to represent them are doing in Olympia, or in their local government, to make our state a better place. As elected officials, we have a duty to respect the will of the voters, and that means working to make the public disclosure system more user-friendly for the average citizen – not discovering new methods to hide information. Last month, I introduced House Bill 1856 with the goal of helping make state government more open, transparent, and accountable. The legislation will begin the discussion of how we provide better access to public records, how we manage the disclosure of records, and what process there should be to resolve disputes. The growingly complex PRA process has become expensive and inefficient. Public agencies spend over $100 million responding to requests and almost $10 million legal fees and costs. There is a better away and HB 1856 will help us get to that solution.
If Washingtonians, and Americans in general, can’t trust the people running their government to do what’s right, they will be likely to start businesses, raise families, make long-term investments, and be less optimistic about the future.
Robust transparency laws give citizens an active role in their own government – it gives them more ownership in the direction of our state, and the tools they need to hold their elected officials accountable. We need to restore trust in government, and that begins by making state government more open, transparent, and accountable.
Peter Abbarno is an attorney with Althauser Rayan Abbarno, LLP and represents the 20th Legislative District in the Washington State House of Representatives.