In the space of 20 minutes Friday, Washington lawmakers voted to exempt themselves from the state’s voter-approved Public Records Act. The Senate first passed the bill and then sent it to the House where it was immediately taken up.
Republican state Rep. Matt Shea praised the measure in a speech on the House floor.
“This bill very simply to me is going to expand and reveal lobbyist communications which is something I think we all agree with,” Shea said. “And currently that is not disclosable. We are expanding transparency today.”
The bill will require lawmakers to release their calendars, some emails and final investigative reports. But many other records would be exempt, including allegations of misconduct against lawmakers.
Legislative leaders introduced the bill this week and fast-tracked it to the floor without going through the normal legislative process.
Last month, a judge in Thurston County ruled that lawmakers are in violation of the state's Public Records Act. The lawsuit was brought by news organizations including public media.
The bill passed the state Senate 41 to 7 and the state House 83 to 14. It now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee who has not said if he will sign it, but who has previously said lawmakers should be able to function under the same rules as other government entities.
The bill has an emergency clause so that it would go into effect immediately upon being signed. That would also preclude a referendum effort to repeal the law.
Democratic state Rep. Gerry Pollet said the bill is a “first step” toward rewriting the public records rules for the Legislature. No one spoke in opposition to the bill on the House floor. However, open government advocates and newspaper representatives have decried the bill as quashing transparency.
“It’s breathtaking to have a bill show up this late in session on this most important issue and for the Legislature to step into an ongoing lawsuit at this moment,” said Rowland Thompson, a lobbyist for the newspaper industry, at a work session earlier this week.
In January, Thurston County Judge Chris Lanese ruled that state lawmakers are subject to the state’s public disclosure laws and have been in violation by not releasing records requested by reporters. Lawyers for the Legislature immediately moved to appeal that decision to the Washington Supreme Court.
As written, the new law would only require lawmakers to release communications and calendars after July 1, 2018.
This story has been updated.