OLYMPIA — Media representatives and open government advocates argued Wednesday against the latest effort by Washington lawmakers to set limits on what the legislative branch needs to release under public disclosure laws.
A public hearing on Senate Bill 5784 was held before the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee, with opponents arguing that lawmakers want to change the law in their favor ahead of a hearing before the state Supreme Court on the issue. The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Jamie Pedersen, says he’s trying to make the Legislature more transparent following the public outcry that resulted from lawmakers’ previous attempt to address legislative records.
Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a bill that would have exempted lawmakers from the voter-approved Public Records Act but would have allowed for more limited legislative disclosure obligation for things like daily calendars and correspondence with lobbyists.
Pedersen acknowledged that public anger following last year’s process — in which lawmakers introduced and passed the bill in two days with limited public input — was “a very painful experience.”
“The things I heard from my constituents convinced me that we really needed to go in a different direction,” he said. “This bill is an attempt to try to find some compromise that moves the Legislature substantially in that direction.”
Lawmakers have argued they are not currently subject to the same disclosure rules that apply to other elected officials. Last year’s bill was in response to a lawsuit filed in 2017 by a media coalition — including the Everett Daily Herald’s parent company Sound Publishing — led by The Associated Press, which said lawmakers are subject to the law and were violating it by not releasing emails, schedules and reports of sexual harassment.
A Thurston County superior court judge ultimately ruled that while the Washington Legislature, the House and Senate were not subject to the Public Records Act, the statute was clear that the offices of individual lawmakers were covered by the law. That ruling has been appealed, and is currently awaiting arguments before the state Supreme Court.
The new measure states lawmakers would be subject to the Public Records Act, with some exceptions, including permanently exempting records ranging from staff analyses to drafts of bills and amendments or records of negotiations between and among lawmakers. It also looks to shield identifying information in constituent communications, such as names, though communications from lobbyists would be subject to full disclosure.
Dave Zeeck, a retired newspaper publisher and current president of Allied Daily Newspapers, called the legislative deliberative process exemption in the bill a “phenomenal overreach” when compared to how other elected officials subject to the law are treated. He said that while he did believe common ground could be found on some exemptions, the timing — with a court hearing looming — was wrong.
“I do think it appears that the Legislature is trying to legislate itself out of a problem in the courts, and I think that’s an appearance issue that’s not helpful to public confidence in the Legislature,” he said. “I think there’s stuff to talk about, but our feeling is clearly that the right way to resolve a court case is not by having the power to rewrite the law retroactively.”
Zeeck was among representatives from several news organizations and a board member from the Washington Coalition for Open Government who testified against the bill.
Before gaveling the hearing to an end, Democratic Sen. Sam Hunt, the committee chairman, said to the press: “I know you’re private, but maybe the press should release its sources, too.”
Hunt later said he has not yet made a decision on whether the bill will come up for a vote in his committee.