The Washington State Legislature once again is attempting to make government records more obscure, this time by trying to shield public employee birthdates from disclosure with the introduction of HB 1888.
Rep. Zack Hudgins, of the 11th Legislative District and Javier Valdez from the 46th Legislative district, both Democrats, are the sponsors.
While proponents say they are most concerned with privacy rights and identity theft, this bill is really about a fight between public employee unions and the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank that uses public employee databases to inform employees of their option to opt out of union membership. The unions hate this. In fact, the two groups have been fighting this fight in court for years.
Most recently, employee unions lost an attempt to shield public employees when the Washington State Supreme Court ruled late last year that birthdates are public information. This upholds what has been Washington State law for decades.
Would it really be that bad if public employee birthdates were shielded? Yes, it would.
Birthdates allow people investigating the government to verify identities, to confirm those serving the public are who they say they are and to distinguish among individuals with similar names. Birthdates have been key in many independent investigations of government actions.
For example: an investigative series on coaches showed that community-college administrators in Washington “retired” and then quickly rehired coaches in a way that enabled the coaches to “double dip” and collect both a salary and a pension. The report relied on an analysis of state pension data containing dates of birth.
A story alerted the public that one in 10 Seattle school bus drivers had bad driving or criminal convictions that should have barred them from transporting public school students. That story depended on public employment records containing birthdates.
Reporting on the disputed 2004 gubernatorial election relied on comparing names and dates of birth from the voter registration database and other sources of public records. Reporters were able to inform the public about voting by felons and deceased voters, and to report on systemic problems with election integrity with a level of detail that would have been impossible without date of birth information.
This isn’t about privacy. Dates of birth are ubiquitous in public records. They are included in marriage licenses, records of military service, a license to practice medicine or even licenses to drive a taxi. State law requires the date of birth for all registered voters, birth certificates include both the child and parent dates of birth and are public records available from the Department of Health. As a historic, legislative, and factual matter, dates of birth have long been a matter of public record in Washington.
Public employee unions have ample opportunities to explain the advantages of union membership to public employees. They don’t need to hinder access to public records to do that.
Fred Obee is the Executive Director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.