OLYMPIA — A House committee has approved a bill that exempts birth dates of state and local government employees from disclosure under the state’s public records law, but allows the media to continue to have access to them.
The House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee voted 7-1 in favor of the bill Friday, and the bill is now being considered by the House Appropriations Committee, The Olympian reported.
The bill is in response to an October ruling by the state Supreme Court that said birth dates of state employees are public records that are subject to disclosure.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court said there was no statutory or constitutional allowance that would preclude the release of such information. The fight over access to employee birth dates stems from a 2016 request from the Freedom Foundation, a conservative group that had been seeking disclosure of records of union-represented employees so it could contact them as part of its effort to reduce the size and influence of public-sector unions. Several unions sought to stop the release of the records.
Several state employees testified that the bill is needed to to protect them from identity theft, stalkers and others who may want to target them at home. But Freedom Foundation says they are the main reason for the bill.
If the bill becomes law, state and local government agencies also would be required to notify employees and their unions whenever a public request is made for employee information.
Advocates for open government raised concerns about the carve-out for media under the bill.
“It is a dangerous path to start treating the media differently than citizens on the right to public records,” wrote Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, in a blog post Friday.
Democratic Rep. Mia Gregerson, who is chairwoman of the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee, said journalists need to continue to have access to birth dates in order to use them as primary identifiers to make sure investigative articles about government wrongdoing are accurate.
Republican Rep. Jim Walsh, the sole no vote on the committee, said he’s concerned about creating two classes of people who file public records requests and also whether the bill will face legal challenges if it becomes law.