Photo by Taylor McAvoy

Photo by Taylor McAvoy

Lawmakers go into damage control over public records bill

Legislators try to frame the bill as a win for open government, while opponents hope for veto by Governor Jay Inslee.

Following last week’s rapid-fire vote on a bill to exempt the Legislature from state public records laws, lawmakers are going into damage control as public backlash mounts.

The bill, SB 6617, explicitly exempts lawmakers from the state’s Public Records Act, and applies immediately and retroactively—meaning that existing records going back to statehood would be off limits to disclosure requests. The legislation allows disclosure of lawmakers’ calendars and communications with registered lobbyists, but only documents created after July 1, 2018.

Introduced on Wednesday, Feb. 21, the bill was rushed at break-neck speed to a vote two days later in both the state Senate and House on Feb. 23. It passed both chambers in 20 minutes with wide margins and no floor debate.

“In my 18 years in the Legislature, this is by far the fastest I’ve ever seen a bill pass, from beginning to end,” said Sen. Mark Miloscia, R–Federal Way, who was one of the seven state senators to vote against SB 6617. He called the bill’s quick turnaround a “world record in my book.”

The last-minute introduction of the law and the rush to enact it comes after a January ruling by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese, who determined that the Legislature is subject to public records laws.

The decree was prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Associated Press, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, and other regional papers against lawmakers who denied a records request that journalists made last year for internal communications and information on incidents of sexual harassment.

Lawmakers have appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, where the litigation is ongoing.

Public outcry over the bill was immediate. On Feb. 27, 13 daily newspapers across Washington state published front-page editorials condemning the bill, and the Seattle Times reported that over the weekend, Governor Jay Inslee had received more than 500 emails from citizens criticizing the legislation. On Monday, Feb. 26 alone, his office received 200 phone calls from people opposing the bill, according to the report.

Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D–Seattle, who voted for SB 6617, said in a phone interview that he hasn’t received any constituent emails that support the bill.

Now some lawmakers are going into damage control over the backlash. Since their vote on Friday, legislators who supported the bill began issuing press releases and statements on Facebook and other platforms defending their vote. They are framing the legislation as a win for both constituent privacy and government transparency.

In a Feb. 23 statement, Sen. Manka Dhingra, D–Kirkland, said that the bill balances the privacy of constituents with transparency. “I am happy that we are moving in the direction of more transparency,” she wrote.

The same day, Rep. Sharon Wylie, D–Vancouver, published a statement on her website in which she slammed media coverage on the issue: “Media reports that claim this is a way of avoiding transparency and bypassing a court decision are incorrect,” she wrote.

Rep. Gael Tarleton, D–Ballard, argued in a Feb. 25 blog post that while the process by which the bill passed was “flawed,” she thought it was necessary to counteract Judge Lanese’s January ruling. She wrote that the ruling would impose “obscene” financial costs to legislators to administer records requests and “paralyze the ability of legislators to properly represent their constituents.”

Additionally, several House members circulated a defense of the bill authored by Sen. Pedersen. Pedersen said that he had shared his message—which was originally published in The Stand—with the Senate Democrats communications staff, who then passed it over to House Democrats’ staffers, who distributed it among their members. In the essay, Pedersen said that the bill has been “widely misunderstood.”

“There’s no real attempt to have any balance in the reporting,” said Pedersen of media coverage on the issue in a phone interview. He also characterized the numerous newspaper editorials as an “unprecedented use of resources by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to try and stir up opposition to the bill.”

The press and open government advocates were quick to fact-check the messaging from lawmakers. Seattle Times Editorial Board member Melissa Santos argued on Twitter on Feb. 26 that health information and many personal details are already exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act, contrasting with claims from lawmakers that SB 6617 is needed to protect constituent privacy.

Sean Robinson, a reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune, slammed legislators’ characterizations of both the bill and media coverage of it on Twitter: “The media covered it truthfully. You guys ran a deceitful, abusive process that prevented scrutiny, cut out public hearings and denied your own members the chance to speak in dissent. Own it and be honest,” he wrote on Feb. 24.

“For the most part, what we’re hearing the legislators saying is not true,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard, the attorney representing the media organizations in the lawsuit.

In response to criticisms of the bill’s rushed passage, Pedersen claimed in his essay that the bill needed to be pushed through at the end of the legislative session because Judge Lanese’s ruling came in late January and he “refused” to suspend his order until the case had gone through the appeals process. “If the ruling had come in October, we could have done this differently,” he wrote.

Earl-Hubbard countered that lawmakers never requested a stay from Judge Lanese. “It’s not true that they asked him to stay his order and he turned them down. They never asked him,” she said.

Following the January ruling, attorneys representing the legislators filed for a stay with the state Supreme Court, but the court has yet to rule on the request, according to Earl-Hubbard.

Sen. Miloscia said that the bill was rushed to passage within three days due to its strong support among lawmakers and the likelihood that it would garner public opposition. “When there is complete and utter agreement among a vast number of legislators on a bill that people will get upset over, those bills go extremely fast, as fast you can make it, and that’s exactly what happened,” he said.

Miloscia said that the bill “basically says that the politicians decide what the people have the right to know,” and that legislators “knew exactly what they were voting for.”

The bill currently sits before Governor Jay Inslee, who could choose to sign the bill, let it pass without his signature, or veto it. He has until Thursday, March 1, to make a decision.

During a Feb. 27 appearance on MSNBC, Inslee said that, while he thinks the bill is a “bad idea,” he added that a veto would do little to stop the bill since lawmakers passed it with a “veto-proof majority.” He added that he doesn’t “have control over” over the legislation.

When asked if the governor would veto the legislation anyway, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee merely wrote in an email that their office is “reviewing it.”

The governor has vetoed legislation that has received super majorities in the legislature before. Last year, Inslee vetoed an across-the-board manufacturing tax cut that was nonetheless passed by both chambers.

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

More in Northwest

A man addresses the King County Council during a public hearing March 20 at New Life Church in Renton. He presented bags filled with what he said was hazardous materials dropped on his property by bald eagles. Another speaker made similar claims. Haley Ausbun/staff photo
Locals show support for King County waste to energy plant

Public hearing on landfill’s future was held March 20 in Renton.

After being homeless, Christy X (pictured) moved into her Coniston Arms Apartments unit in Seattle at the beginning of 2019. She had bounced around from shelters to friends’ places after facing an eviction at her West Seattle apartment in October 2018. A diversion program run by the nonprofit Mary’s Place helped her find housing. File photo
State lawmakers consider eviction reform legislation

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, is bill’s prime sponsor.

United Methodist vote has churches’ future in question

Congregations debate separation following gay-clergy, same-sex marriage ban.

Gov. Jay Inlsee signs into law the Native American Voting Rights Act, which allows a non-traditional address to be used for voter registration for residents who live on reservations. Photo by Emma Epperly/WNPA Olympia News Bureau
Native American Voting Rights Act signed into law

Non-traditional addresses can be used for voter registration on tribal lands

The Cedar Hills Regional Landfill is the only active landfill in King County. It will operate until at least 2028. It has been in operation since the 1960s. Aaron Kunkler/staff photo
Waste study puts numbers behind King County trash alternatives

County has one remaining landfill located near Maple Valley, and it’s nearing capacity

U.S. is now grounding Renton-made 737 MAX 8 and 9; Boeing supports decision

Update: The decision does not affect Renton production lines.

Courtesy photo
State lawmakers seek permanent daylight saving time in Washington

Senate and House are working toward compromise on two bills; voters could decide in November election

Green River floods may be gone (for now), but they’re not forgotten

King County is looking at ways to increase protection in the Kent valley.

Eastside church sues state on International Women’s Day to overturn abortion coverage

The lawsuit was filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is classified as a hate group by Southern Poverty Law Center

King County charter update targets police oversight, elections, council size

A commission is reviewing the county’s charter and will make recommendations by May.

Primrose School of West Bellevue saw a second location in Washington open in 2018. Madison Miller/staff photo.
Parents are feeling the pinch of child care costs

A King County report charts ways the county could reduce child care costs and boost access.

Praerit Garg joins Smartsheet as CTO

Bellevue-based company employs 760 people