Legislators try to ram through a bill to restrict public access to their records; critics slam it as an attempt to shield lawmakers from public scrutiny

State lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are pushing a bill to exempt themselves from public records requests.

The move comes on the heels of a court ruling that the Legislature is required to adhere to the state’s open government laws.

The bill, SB 6617, would directly amend the state’s Public Records Act to explicitly exempt the state Legislature—this includes its employees, agencies, and members—from the law’s disclosure requirements retroactively and starting immediately. The legislation is expected to get a floor vote in both chambers of the legislature today.

The bill would exempt from disclosure records such as correspondence between lawmakers and anyone they consider to be constituents, which is broadly defined as individuals who aren’t registered as official lobbyists or people who employ registered lobbyists.

In January, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled against the Legislature in a lawsuit filed by several news organizations, including the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association. The judge ruled that the Legislature is subject to the Public Records Act. The lawmakers promptly appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, which has not yet decided the matter.

The lawsuit came after news organizations’ records requests for any documentation of sexual assault complaints against the 147 lawmakers were denied last year.

The bill, introduced on Wednesday, Feb. 21, is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Sen. Sharon Nelson, D–Maury Island, and Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R–Ritzville.

In a rare joint statement, leadership from both parties praised the bill as a compromise between government transparency and the privacy of people’s correspondence with lawmakers. In the statement, Sen. Nelson said that the bill is a “middle ground approach” that “strikes a good balance between privacy, transparency and the legislature’s ability to do its job.”

News organizations and government transparency advocates quickly lambasted the proposal as a way for lawmakers to get around the court’s ruling by not only shielding the Legislature from the Public Records Act, but also applying the exemption retroactively—which would cover the sexual assault records that newspapers originally requested.

“It’s really despicable what they’re doing,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard, the attorney who represents the news organizations in the lawsuit. “It’s clearly trying to get the four leaders who are party to the lawsuit out of the existing decision.”

Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said that the speed at which legislators are pushing the bill and the lack of stakeholder input is “shameful.”

“We think that the lack of transparency in this bill process is kind of indicative of how the legislature feels in general about public participation in the legislative process,” he said

While most policy bills that don’t affect the budget had cut-off deadlines in early February, this one features an emergency clause which technically allows lawmakers to move it regardless of the deadlines. The bill was introduced on Feb. 21 and it is expected to get a floor vote in both chambers on Friday, Feb. 23.

Nixon said that legislative leadership has the “thumb screws” on its caucuses and is pressuring them to pass the legislation.

Six people were allowed to comment on the bill in a joint work session held by members of the House and Senate committees concerning state government on Feb. 22. The testimony was unanimously opposed.

“It’s breathtaking to have a bill show up this late in session on this most important issue and have the legislature step in on this ongoing lawsuit,” said Rowland Thompson, a lobbyist representing the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

Publisher of The Tacoma News Tribune and The Olympian, David Zeeck, said that there would have been 20 newspaper publishers at the Capitol to testify against the bill, had they had more notice.

“All other legislative bodies in this state operate in a much more open fashion than you’re prescribing here. The present governor hasn’t even used executive privilege,” he said. “You’re running the risk of demonstrating to the people that you’re setting up an imperial legislature that is not subject to the people.”

Gordon Padget, a Vancouver Washington resident who drove to Olympia to testify, said the bill makes the government seem less transparent. “Everything about the way this bill is being handled makes the average citizen leery of the legislation and leery of everyone in the Legislature,” he said, adding that the bill’s purpose is to “cover the legislators’ collective backsides.”

At a press conference on Feb. 21, Governor Jay Inslee said that while he hadn’t seen the bill, lawmakers can be effective while being transparent. “Legislators can succeed in their duties while being fully transparent in state government,” he said.

In 2013, Inslee declared that he would not use executive privilege to hide records from his office.

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

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