Calmer heads prevailed in Olympia on Thursday night. Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a bill that would have created a two-tiered system in which most of the state’s government was subject to the Public Records Act, but the Legislature had its own, secretive rules. The veto came after many legislators had a change of heart and agreed not to overrule a veto. Transparency wins … for now.
How much a win this is for Washingtonians and their ability to see what the Legislature gets up to will be decided in coming months, but there is reason for hope.
The Legislature passed its secrecy bill, Senate Bill 6617, last week in response to a court ruling that lawmakers are subject to the Public Records Act. The new law would have opened a few records but kept most of the interesting ones hidden from the public. The bill would have been retroactive and would have removed independent judicial oversight. Lawmakers would have handled appeals themselves.
The Legislature rushed it to passage in 48 hours without a public hearing or debate.
More than 12,000 emails and phone calls from Washingtonians flooded the governor’s office opposing the bill. An Inslee spokeswoman called the response “unprecedented.” The Spokesman-Review and a dozen other state newspapers ran front-page editorials condemning it. Even the state Sunshine Committee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson urged a veto.
The message broke through.
“We have heard loud and clear from our constituents that they are angry and frustrated with the process by which we passed ESB 6617, the Legislative Public Records Act,” House and Senate Democrats, who control each chamber, wrote in a letter to the governor asking him to veto it.
The mistake was not one of process alone, of course, but if that’s what lawmakers need to tell themselves to start over and do this right, then so be it. The public understands that not only was the process terrible, but the secrecy the bill would have created was even worse.
Thanks to Inslee’s veto, there is an opportunity for a fresh start. Credit also goes to Spokane-area lawmakers. Every Democrat and House Republican from the region signed a letter asking for a veto. Bonus points to Sen. Mike Baumgartner, who alone from the area opposed the original bill.
Conspicuously, House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, both Democrats, were not among the signatories. Neither, exactly, were Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler and House Minority Leader Dan Kristensen because there was no Senate Republican letter and the House Republican letter was a group effort.
The plaintiffs in the court challenge that started all of this – including The Spokesman-Review – have agreed that they will not seek to enforce the trial court’s order during an appeal. They also will not start an initiative or referendum to change current law.
Lawmakers committed to convening a task force to give the issue the thorough vetting that it deserves. The group will include legislators, open government advocates, representatives of the news media, and executive representatives. They will meet over the next nine months and make recommendations for legislation to be considered in a public process during the 2019 session.
Bringing everyone to the table is the essential first step to thoughtfully dealing with legislative records and the public’s right to know. That task force must listen to the people, too. The thousands of Washingtonians who care about transparency must have a role through public hearings and opportunities to review draft proposals before they go to the Legislature.
The Republican-backed House Bill 2255 might be a good place to start the conversation. Democrats refused to hold a hearing on it. It’s not perfect, but its idea that the Legislature would respond to public records requests as a body instead of as individual lawmakers has some merit and deserves fair consideration.
From there, surely compromise is possible. Balancing government transparency and protecting sensitive information is always difficult. State law allows dozens of exemptions to the Public Records Act for that reason. Some carefully crafted exemptions could address the concerns that lawmakers raised about constituent privacy without upending the entire system.
Washington dodged an open government transparency disaster. Compromise, dialogue and civic engagement now have a chance to work.