Living on this side of the Cascades can be isolating when it comes to engaging in politics, especially during snowy months when Snoqualmie Pass turns into a ski slalom and Olympia might as well be as far off as the original city of that name, the one nestled on the Peloponnese peninsula.
What saves the civic-minded here in Central and Eastern Washington is the lifeline known as TVW, essentially the C-Span for our state. The nonprofit cable network (Channel 193 in Yakima and most of the Valley; Channel 37 in parts of unincorporated Yakima County) and its exhaustively archived website, www.tvw.org, provides livestreaming of committee hearings and floor votes and features original programming holding pols to account.
Given the length and breadth of Washington state — 71,303 square miles, for those counting at home — it is entirely possible, thanks to TVW, that politically engaged citizens in Pullman can keep as up-to-date on governmental activity as those in Puyallup. Some who toil inside the Capitol, we’ve heard, often would rather stream TVW’s feed than sit in the chambers where the discussion is taking place.
Such is the value of TVW that it seems unconscionable that the Legislature, which threw money at programs and initiatives big and small during the recently completed budget session, would refuse TVW’s request for an additional $750,000 to provide coverage of three meeting rooms on the Capitol campus that serve as venues for several agencies dealing with matters keenly important to our part of the state.
So, what won’t we see thanks to the Legislature’s snub of the public’s right to access information as easily as well-connected lobbyists and westside interests?
The station won’t, for example, be showing the 11 meetings per year of the Board of Natural Resources. No big loss, right? This is only the agency that sets policy of how our state’s land and the resources therein are managed. And it’s not as if we have to worry about wildfires, or anything? Nope, we won’t miss a thing not being informed of the latest forest practices the state will employ — or not employ, as the case may be.
Sarcasm aside, agencies like that need community oversight and input. Other meetings that won’t be available for public consumption include the Fish & Wildlife Commission, the Salmon Recovery Board, Invasive Species Council, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, and the Transportation Commission.
Clearly, this is a loss we will feel through omission, not knowing fully what transpired. Certainly, the Capitol press corps can provide details and context in newspapers, on the internet and on the radio, but many stakeholders prefer the unfiltered, unedited testimony from elected officials.
Gov. Jay Inslee, to his credit, included TVW’s request for additional funding in his 2019-21 budget proposal. The House, too, found room in its budget for TVW. The Senate did not and, as the Washington Policy Center’s Jason Mercier wryly noted, “For some unknown reason, when the budget deal white smoke finally rose from Olympia in the final days of session, it was omitted from the final budget adopted.”
Mercier and his conservative think tank have long been concerned about transparency in government and giving all citizens access. His group lobbied for remote testimony at sites throughout Central and Eastern Washington, which the Senate has adopted, and it is among a bipartisan coalition of interest groups, foundations and media organizations that have opposed the Legislature’s ongoing flouting of the Public Records Act.
Though denying TVW more funds to expand its committee coverage does not reach the same level of open-government outrage as state representatives refusing to release emails and other public documents that every other state elected officials must do, the non-action shows lawmakers’ cavalier attitude when it comes to holding itself accountable to the electorate.
In the past two years, the Legislature’s track record on transparency has gone from bad to worse. There was last year’s Public Records Act fiasco, which will be heard by the state Supreme Court on June 11. There was the last-minute unveiling of a compromise budget agreement that allowed precious little time for vetting, as well as the series of late-night votes that literally kept most in the dark.
Now, this. TVW does an admirable job holding all branches of state government accountable. Too bad the Legislative branch doesn’t recognize its full worth.