By Rachel La Corte
The Associated Press
OLYMPIA — Following a public outcry, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a bill Thursday that sought to exempt Washington lawmakers from the state’s Public Records Act and legislators agreed to not take another vote to override his action.
The agreement came hours before the measure — contested by media groups and open government advocates — would have become law.
In turn, a media coalition that sued over legislative records last year agreed to seek a stay of proceedings in the trial court during an appeal from last month’s court ruling that found state lawmakers are fully subject to the same broad public disclosure requirements that cover other local and state elected officials and employees at state agencies. The Legislature is in the process of appealing that ruling, and while a stay was likely to be granted in the case regardless, the media groups agreed to officially request the stay with the defendants and to not seek enforcement of the order while the case is on appeal.
“The public’s right to government information is one we hold dearly in Washington,” Inslee said in a written statement issued after the veto.
The media groups also agreed to not launch an initiative effort while the stay was in place, and to work on a task force with lawmakers and others to try and resolve some of the issues surrounding legislative records while the court case continues.
In a Thursday letter by the media coalition attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard, she said a veto would allow the group to “work collaboratively with legislators and other stakeholders to resolve our differences transparently.”
“It is our belief the public has the right to weigh in on any potential changes to public records law before it is enacted,” she wrote.
Lawmakers had sought to change the law to retroactively specify that the state’s voter-approved Public Records Act does not apply to the legislative branch. The bill created a more limited legislative disclosure obligation for legislative records starting on July 1.
The bill was introduced just two days before it was passed, and lawmakers overrode all normal legislative procedures to quickly advance it with minimal public input. It passed the Senate on a 41-7 vote Friday, and then was quickly approved by the House 83-14.
In identical letters sent to Inslee Thursday night and signed by 16 Senate Democrats and 41 House Democrats, the caucuses write they “made a mistake by failing to go through a full public hearing process on this very important legislation.”
“We think that the only way to make this right is for you to veto the bill and for us to start again,” they wrote.
The entire House Republican caucus also sent Inslee a letter saying that a veto was “a good start” and asked that the House hold a hearing next week on a Republican bill that would have applied the Public Records Act to the Legislature but which never received a hearing.
More than a dozen newspapers across the state ran front-page editorials Tuesday urging Inslee to veto the bill that was co-sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler.
Inslee’s office said it had received more than 6,300 phone calls, 100 letters and more than 12,500 emails regarding the bill, with the vast majority asking for his veto.
The bill would have prohibited the release of lawmaker communication with constituents but, starting this summer would have allowed release of lawmaker correspondence with lobbyists, information from lawmaker calendars and final disciplinary reports.
Because the bill was retroactive, it sought to prohibit the release of records being sought by the coalition of news organizations, led by The Associated Press, that prevailed in the court ruling in Thurston County.
Under the measure, exemptions from disclosure would have included 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 have been subject to disclosure, emails or other documentation of allegations involving 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 had to seek review by the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee or the House Executive Rules Committee, whose rulings would be final and no review by the courts would have been allowed.
While an emergency clause on the measure would mean no referendum effort could have been launched asking voters to approve or reject the legislation, citizen initiatives are another option, and initiative promoter Tim Eyman has already filed a ballot measure proposal with the secretary of state’s office that would subject state lawmakers to the Public Records Act. In order to make the November ballot, Eyman would need to collect signatures from nearly 260,000 registered voters by July 6.
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 (including the Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum), Tacoma News Inc. and The Seattle Times.