OLYMPIA — Legislative leaders moved Wednesday to make it clear which records regarding lawmakers will be available to the public and which will not before it becomes an issue in front of the state Supreme Court.
A bill introduced Wednesday would carve a new section into state law pertaining to the Legislature and exempt a slew of documents from disclosure under the Public Records Act, including email and text exchanges between lawmakers, as well as many of their correspondences with constituents.
Other items, such as lawmakers’ calendars and email conversations with lobbyists — which are not readily provided today — would be considered legislative public records subject to disclosure, said lawmakers briefed on the bill.
The legislation, Senate Bill 6617, was quietly pieced together by lawyers and leaders of the four caucuses. Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, introduced it Wednesday. A special work session is slated for Thursday with a vote in the Senate as early as Friday.
The bill arrives as the Legislature is locked in a legal battle with an alliance of media organizations, including The Daily Herald, seeking to force lawmakers to abide by the public records law in the same manner as the governor and other statewide elected officials.
In January, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled the emails, text messages and other information from state lawmakers are subject to public disclosure.
In siding with the media coalition, Judge Chris Lanese rejected the Legislature’s assertion that lawmakers are excluded from stricter disclosure rules that apply to other elected officials and agencies. He noted lawmakers can always amend the law, but unless they do, they must comply.
Both sides have since taken steps to have the Supreme Court consider the case.
The bill introduced Wednesday appears aimed at circumventing the January ruling. It removes the legislative branch, comprised of the Legislature and entities such as the Legislative Ethics Board, the Joint Transportation Committee and the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, from the Public Records Act.
It then outlines the “legislative disclosure obligations” as well as exemptions. The bill also spells out the process of requesting documents and challenging decisions to deny records.
“They are trying to take away a judgment against them by a sitting judge,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard, the attorney for the media coalition.
In a rare show of bipartisan and bicameral unity, leaders of all four caucuses offered comments in support of the bill.
“We have listened to the concerns of the media and open government advocates and believe this bipartisan, middle ground approach strikes a good balance between privacy, transparency and the legislature’s ability to do its job,” Nelson said. “If aspects of this plan do not work in practice, however, I am open to looking at additional ways we can ensure the legislature operates in a way that is more transparent.”
Schoesler said: “This bill is a balanced solution that allows the public to know what is going on inside their government in a way that is both workable and protects the privacy of our constituents.”
Lawmakers in the House and Senate were briefed on the bill Wednesday.
“This lifts the floor on what records are available,”said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, who served in local government before coming to the Legislature. “This will lead to many, many more records becoming available.”
Liias, who has said he wanted the Legislature to stop litigating and come up with a solution, thinks this bill is a step in that direction.
“I think it’s going to provide the right amount of transparency to the public and protect the people’s privacy because that is important,” said Sen. Keith Waggoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, who is that city’s former mayor and also familiar with the demands of the public records law.
He described the bill as “a good step in the right direction” and one he’s prepared to support as it will provide the public more insight to what lawmakers are doing.
An open government advocate criticized lawmakers for the manner in which they are pursuing this change in law.
“The Attorney General and a recent court ruling made clear that there is no double standard when it comes to the people’s right to know,” said Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center.
“Now we see a bill dropped late in session with an emergency clause to enact a different standard for state lawmakers’ public disclosure than exists for every local legislative body,” said Mercier, who also sits on the advisory council of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “Changes of this magnitude to the public records law should not be rushed through without meaningful and adequate opportunity for public comment.”
Senate Bill 6617 will be the subject of a work session Thursday at a joint meeting of the House and Senate state government committees. The session is scheduled to begin at noon.
And the bill contains an emergency clause to make it effective immediately upon enactment. This blocks anyone who might want to try to repeal it through referendum.
Besides the Associated Press and Sound Publishing, the Herald’s parent company, groups involved in the lawsuit are: public radio’s Northwest News Network, KING-TV, KIRO 7, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, The Spokesman-Review, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Tacoma News Inc. and The Seattle Times.
Herald wire services contributed to this report.