Reporters talk with Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way (third from right), following a joint work session of the Senate and House State Government Committees on Thursday at the Capitol in Olympia. The session was held to discuss a bill filed Wednesday by lawmakers who want to circumvent a recent court ruling finding them fully subject to the state’s public disclosure laws. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Reporters talk with Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way (third from right), following a joint work session of the Senate and House State Government Committees on Thursday at the Capitol in Olympia. The session was held to discuss a bill filed Wednesday by lawmakers who want to circumvent a recent court ruling finding them fully subject to the state’s public disclosure laws. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington legislature passes public records exemption bill

The bill allows lawmakers to shield records sought by a coalition of media groups.

By Rachel La Corte / Associated Press

OLYMPIA — The Washington Legislature on Friday overwhelmingly approved legislation meant to circumvent a recent court ruling that found that state lawmakers were fully subject to the state’s public disclosure laws.

The measure passed the Senate on a 41-7 vote Friday, and then was quickly approved by the House 83-14. The bill heads to Gov. Jay Inslee with a veto-proof margin.

The quick action came just two days after the bill was introduced. The bill would retroactively remove the legislative branch from the state’s voter-approved Public Records Act so that lawmakers would be able to shield records sought by a coalition of media groups, led by The Associated Press, who prevailed in court last month.

The bill, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, would allow release of some lawmaker correspondence, “specified information” from lawmaker calendars, and final disciplinary reports beginning on July 1. However, because of the retroactivity language, it would prohibit the release of the records being sought by the coalition of news organizations that sued last September.

On Friday, there was no floor debate in either chamber.

In the Senate, only Nelson and Schoesler spoke before it was voted on. Each said it would increase transparency by giving the public access to records that weren’t available before.

It was a similar message in the House where only Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, and Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, made the pitch before passage.

Area lawmakers did speak afterwards.

“It puts parameters around things but it is still open, a lot more open than we were before,” said Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, who voted for the bill.

Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, who also supported it, noted the content had been “heavily negotiated.”

“I do think we needed to do something,” she said. “I hope it will bring some clarity.”

Two legislators who served in local government voted against the bill. Each said their decision was influenced by their experiences with the public records law.

Sen. Keith Waggoner, R-Sedro-Woolley, the city’s former mayor, said some of the provisions are what cities have been seeking and not receiving.

“I thought (the bill) it was a giant step in the right direction,” he said. “I’d like to see us go further and give relief to the rest of local government. I thought it was a little odd we didn’t give relief to local governments.”

Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, served on the Mill Creek City Council before joining the Legislature.

“Because I came out of city government, I felt that there was more that we could have released,” he said. “I am sure we’ll have to tweak this in the next couple years.”

Passage of the bill comes with the Legislature locked in its legal battle with news organizations seeking to force lawmakers to abide by the public records law in the same manner as the governor and other statewide elected officials.

The Legislature is in the midst of appealing the Jan. 19 ruling of Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese, who ruled state representatives and senators and their offices are fully subject to the same broad public disclosure requirements that cover other local and state elected officials and employees at state agencies.

Besides AP, the 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, Sound Publishing (which owns the Everett Herald), Tacoma News Inc. and The Seattle Times.

Legislative leaders from all four political caucuses issued statements in support of the measure, and Nelson, in that written statement, called the bill a “good balance between privacy, transparency and the legislature’s ability to do its job.”

Under the measure, exemptions from disclosure would include records of policy development, as well as any records that would “violate an individual’s right to privacy.” While final disciplinary reports against lawmakers would be subject to disclosure, emails or other documentation of allegations of things like sexual harassment or misconduct that doesn’t result in an official report — which were among the records the news coalition was seeking — would not. Any person wanting to challenge a records denial would have to seek review by the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee or the House Executive Rules Committee, whose rulings would be final. No review by the courts would be allowed.

Instead of an official public hearing, a more informal work session was hastily scheduled Thursday after the measure was introduced. While public testimony was allowed, there was no committee vote and the bill was pulled directly to the Senate floor calendar.

“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, albeit not going well for you,” Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, told the joint session of the House and Senate state government committees Thursday.

The measure has an emergency clause attached, which means that instead of taking effect 90 days after the end of session, like most bills, it would take effect immediately, ensuring that there could be no referendum to challenge it.

It’s unclear whether Gov. Jay Inslee — who has said he believes lawmakers should be subject to the same transparency laws other government officials are — would veto the bill if it passes both chambers. If two-thirds of lawmakers support the measure, they could ultimately override any veto.

At least two of the lawmakers who were part of the work session said afterward that they would be voting against the measure in their respective chambers: Republican Sen. Mark Miloscia and Democratic Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, who released his records to media last year.

“The public has a right to have access to our public records,” Pellicciotti said. “If the court has spoken, we should honor what the court has already said.”

Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

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