Washington state lawmakers have overwhelmingly approved legislation that will make some of their records public in the future, but will circumvent a recent court ruling that found they were already fully subject to the state’s public disclosure laws.
The measure retroactively removes the legislative branch from the state’s voter-approved Public Records Act so that lawmakers are able to attempt to shield records sought by a coalition of media groups, led by The Associated Press, who prevailed in court last month.
It passed the Senate on a 41-7 vote Friday, and then was quickly approved by the House 83-14. The bill heads to Gov. Jay Inslee with a veto-proof margin.
The quick action comes just two days after the bill was introduced. Only four lawmakers spoke during the brief debates in both chambers, all saying that the measure is intended to increase transparency.
Here’s link to bill that exempts the legislature from the public records act following a court ruling that found lawmakers are subject to the PRA. It passed off the floors of the Senate and House at warp speed just now: https://t.co/16vPLrLFOt— Austin Jenkins N3 (@AustinJenkinsN3) February 23, 2018
The bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, allows the release of some lawmaker correspondence, including those with lobbyists; information from lawmaker calendars; and final disciplinary reports beginning on July 1.
However, because of the retroactivity language, it would prohibit the release of the records being sought by the coalition of news organizations that sued last September.
“This bill is a significant and major step forward for the people of Washington and this institution as we step into the sunlight, requiring what I believe are the most important disclosures for the people of Washington to hold their elected representatives accountable,” said Democratic Rep. Gerry Pollett.
The Legislature is appealing the Jan. 19 ruling of Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese, who ruled state representatives and senators and their offices are fully subject to the same broad public disclosure requirements that cover other local and state elected officials and employees at state agencies.
Senate Republican Minority Leader Mark Schoesler said the ruling was too broad and “completely unworkable.”
“Just as important as transparency is the ability of lawmakers to effectively work on behalf of those who sent us here,” he said.
Republican Sen. Mark Miloscia, who voted no, said that the rushed process and ultimate outcome “feeds into the cynicism that we see, that we can’t trust politicians.”
“The Legislature should be leading on transparency, not giving the impression that it’s hiding stuff,” he said.
Under the measure, exemptions from disclosure would include records of policy development, as well as any records that would “violate an individual’s right to privacy.” While final disciplinary reports against lawmakers would be subject to disclosure, emails or other documentation of allegations of things like sexual harassment or misconduct that doesn’t result in an official report — which were among the records the news coalition was seeking — would not.
Any person wanting to challenge a records denial would have to seek review by the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee or the House Executive Rules Committee, whose rulings would be final. Unlike denials under the state’s Public Records Act, no review by the courts would be allowed.
An attorney for the media coalition said the group’s litigation would continue, and that the effort to make the law retroactive would be part of the ongoing case.
“This is not a transparency bill,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard. “This is them choosing to provide a few records if they feel like it, when they feel like it, without enforcement power.”
It’s unclear whether Inslee — who has said he believes lawmakers should be subject to the same transparency laws other government officials are — would veto the bill, especially since there was enough legislative support to override the veto.
Besides AP, the groups involved in the lawsuit are: public radio’s Northwest News Network, KING-TV, KIRO 7, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, The Spokesman-Review, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Sound Publishing, Tacoma News Inc. and The Seattle Times.