In the face of intense pressure from the public and media, and following hours of behind-the-scenes negotiations, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee late Thursday vetoed a bill that exempts the Legislature from the state’s voter-approved Public Disclosure Act.
In a written statement, Inslee said lawmakers and media organizations involved in an ongoing public records lawsuit had agreed to work together on the issue and seek a stay in the proceedings while an appeal is pending. Public radio is a party to the lawsuit.
"The public's right to government information is one we hold dearly in Washington," Inslee said in his statement. "I believe legislators will find they can fulfill their duties while being fully transparent, just like state and local governments all across Washington."
In the minutes before Inslee's veto was announced, the Legislative caucuses released letters signed by dozens of lawmakers requesting the governor veto the bill. The letters represented a stunning eleventh-hour about-face less than a week after lawmakers passed the bill by veto-proof majorities on a fast-track schedule.
"We have heard loud and clear from our constituents that they are angry and frustrated with the process by which we passed ESB 6617," said a letter signed by 16 Senate Democrats. The letter acknowledged "we made a mistake" by not going through a full public hearing process. "We think that the only way to make this right is for you to veto the bill and for us to start again."
The letter went on to say the Legislature will convene a task force to work on the issue over the next nine months and then make recommendations to the 2019 Legislature. Forty-one House Democrats signed an identical letter to Inslee.
A letter from House Republicans blamed majority Democrats for the flawed process and called on Speaker of the House Frank Chopp to schedule a public hearing next Wednesday on a previously introduced public records bill that did not get a hearing earlier in the 60-day session.
The governor’s veto followed a frenzied week when his office was deluged with nearly 19,000 calls and emails about Senate Bill 6617. A dozen newspapers also published front page editorials calling on the governor to veto the measure, which was rushed through the Legislature last week in less than 72-hours.
Washington lawmakers passed the public records exemption bill in response to a January court ruling in the lawsuit brought by news organizations. In that ruling, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese said that lawmakers are subject to the Public Disclosure Act and that legislative leaders have been violating the law by refusing to turn over documents in response to requests from reporters and members of the public.
The Legislature is now appealing that ruling to the Washington Supreme Court.
The types of records that are at issue in the lawsuit include lawmaker emails, calendars and documents related to education funding and sexual harassment.
Senate Bill 6617 would have effectively prevented the release of those records by retroactively exempting the Legislature from the Public Disclosure Act.
Beginning July 1, the law would have required the release of some records including lawmaker calendars and emails with lobbyists, but not with constituents. Final disciplinary proceedings would also have been releasable, but no other information about alleged misconduct unless officially designated as a legislative public record.
In floor speeches, members of the Legislature defended the bill as bringing more “sunshine” to the Legislature. Since passage of the bill, lawmakers have been forced to defend their vote and the rushed process to constituents.
In an email to one constituent, Democratic state Rep. Gael Tarleton of Seattle apologized “for letting you down.” But she also said the bill was necessary to create a “disclosure policy” in the wake of the court ruling to ensure the Legislature “no longer exempts itself from sharing our work with the public.”
Inslee also faced pressure to veto the bill from Washington’s Sunshine Committee, which makes recommendations on exemptions to the Public Disclosure Act. In addition, a pair of King County councilmembers, Reagan Dunn and Joe McDermott, sent a letter to Inslee requesting that he veto the bill.
"When politicians are in charge of billions of taxpayer dollars, the public deserves transparency," Dunn said in a statement. "The public and the press deserve so much better."
Washington's Public Records Act, first enacted by voters in 1972, applies to state and local elected officials and governments.