Will he or won’t he? That’s the question as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee faces immense pressure to veto a bill that exempts the Legislature from the state’s Public Records Act. Inslee has until midnight Thursday to decide.
The issue has galvanized the public. As of 4 p.m. Wednesday, Inslee’s office said it had received more than 8,000 emails and over 4,000 calls. The governor’s staff called the volume “unprecedented.”
So what has Washingtonians so fired up? The fact lawmakers jammed through Senate Bill 6617 last week that takes them out of Washington’s voter-approved open records law and instead creates a separate set of disclosure rules that apply only to the Legislature. The bill was introduced and passed in less than 72 hours and without a formal public hearing. Even lawmakers who voted for the bill acknowledge it wasn’t their finest moment.
“I’ve let the governor’s legislative affairs director know in no uncertain terms that the process we used, quite frankly, I think the word I used is that it sucked,” said state Rep. Larry Springer, a Democrat.
Springer made his comments at a meeting Tuesday of the Attorney General’s Sunshine Committee which reviews all exemptions to the Public Disclosure Act. Springer is a member of that committee. So is former House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, who relayed that her husband had just been in a bar in Spokane with a diverse group of people and the public records bill was a key topic of conversation.
“And they were outraged to a person, from the vegetarian to the gun owner in eastern Washington, outraged,” Kessler said.
On Tuesday, seven members of the Sunshine Committee, with no lawmakers present or voting, unanimously approved a resolution calling on Inslee to veto Senate Bill 6617.
The resolution specifically notes the lack of public input on the bill, the fact the Legislature could deny a public records request it deems harassing in nature and that there is no avenue for judicial review in cases when the Legislature might deny the release of certain records.
Washington lawmakers passed the public records exemption bill following a January court ruling in a lawsuit brought by news organizations, including public radio. Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled that lawmakers are subject to the Public Disclosure Act and have been violating the law by refusing to turn over documents.
Those documents include emails, calendars and records related to sexual harassment. The Legislature is now appealing that ruling to the Washington Supreme Court.
Senate Bill 6617 aims to prevent the release of those records by retroactively exempting the Legislature from the Public Disclosure Act.
Supporters of the bill argue it would increase legislative transparency. Starting in July 2018, the bill would require lawmakers to release their calendars and communications with lobbyists, but not constituents.
“This bill very simply to me is going to expand and reveal lobbyist communications, which is something I think we all agree with,” said Republican state Rep. Matt Shea during the vote in the Washington House last Friday. “And currently that is not disclosable. We are expanding transparency today.”
Final disciplinary proceedings would also be subject to disclosure, but not documents related to investigations of misconduct.
Inslee will have four options on Thursday: he can veto the bill, partially veto sections, sign it or let it go into law unsigned. The Legislature can override any vetoes with a two-thirds vote. The original bill passed with more support than that.