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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Legislature quickly passes bill exempting itself from much of state Public Records Act

Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia,the chairman of the State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee, bangs the gavel during a joint work session, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. A proposal from Hunt would give voters a list of Democratic candidates, a separate list of Republican candidates and the requirement that they declare an affiliation to the party of the candidate they choose. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – With no debate and in less than an hour, the Senate and House voted overwhelmingly to suspend their usual procedures and exempted themselves from parts of the Public Records Act.

On a 41-7 bipartisan vote, the Senate immediately sent to the House a bill that would retroactively hide some documents lawmakers have been ordered to release by a trial judge, setting up a rare same-day final vote on a bill that was only released Wednesday.

Less than 20 minutes later, the House agreed on an 83-14 vote. Both chambers set aside standard procedures to vote on the bill so quickly, passing it even faster than last year’s operating budget, which was needed at the time to prevent a state government shutdown set to occur the following day.

All legislators who represent parts of Spokane County voted in support of the legislation except Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, said the bill would provide more transparency for the Legislature, making calendars, communications with lobbyists and final dispositions of investigations public.

“This is a step forward in transparency,” Nelson said in introducing the bill.

Critics of the bill said that while it will provide more access to certain records that the legislature has consistently withheld, it still falls short of the access ordered by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese. The bill essentially takes the Legislature out of that law and creates a separate disclosure law, which is retroactive and doesn’t allow appeals to the courts if a record is refused.

Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, insisted he also believes in open government and transparency, and described the bill as a “balanced, workable solution” that protects the privacy of constituents.

None of the senators who eventually voted “No” spoke against it before the vote, or objected to setting aside the standard rules to allow such a quick vote.

Baumgartner said later the issue of legislative records is complicated but he thought it would have been a better process to address lawmakers’ concerns.

“Outside the Legislature, it seems reasonable to limit legislators to the same standards as other elected officials,” said Baumgartner, who said he didn’t speak against the bill because it clearly had the support to pass.

The process was repeated in the House, where the bill arrived and got another quick vote, with two introductory speeches in favor and no representative speaking against it.

Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, said he has “enthusiastic support” for the bill. A court, Shea contended, was “twisting the plain meaning of the law” by a ruling last month that each legislative office was a state agency under the Public Records Act, and required to disclose documents like any other state or local government agency.

“We are not state agencies, we are the ones that have oversight over state agencies,” Shea said.

Lanese was ruling on a lawsuit brought by news media organizations in the state, led by the Associated Press and including The Spokesman-Review. The news organizations filed the suit last year after requesting records from all 147 legislative offices and being denied.

Shea noted that some of the news organizations suing the Legislature are “for-profit companies,” and the bill protects correspondence from crime victims, whistleblowers and other constituents who contact his office with personal problems.

Although 14 House members voted against the bill, none of them spoke against it or objected when the rules were set aside to bring the bill to the floor. Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, one of those who voted no, said opponents were told not to speak against it.

In an email to the Washington Policy Center, a group that opposes the bill, Stambaugh wrote she was disappointed at what she called “a blatant disregard for transparency in the legislative process.”

“Legislators were restricted in this debate and were not allowed to verbalize any argument against this bill on the House floor,” she wrote in an email to Jason Mercier of the organization’s Center for Government Reform. Mercier said she gave permission for the message to be posted.

The bill allows legislators to refuse to release mail and other communication from constituents, although it requires them to release communications from registered lobbyists. Critics of the bill said Thursday at the public’s only chance to comment that “constituent” isn’t well defined, and could be interpreted to include executives of a large corporation or union who don’t go through a lobbyist.

Lawmakers also can refuse to release reports of investigations into allegations of misconduct by members. Only the final determination is covered under the bill.

The bill will be sent to Gov. Jay Inslee, who has said he doesn’t support it. But he also said he probably would not veto the bill if it passes with a veto-proof majority, which it has.