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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gov. Jay Inslee vetoes bill exempting Legislature from Public Records Act

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at the panel Pathways to Prosperity during the National Governor Association 2018 winter meeting, on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, in Washington. Inslee vetoed a bill Thursday night that would have exempted the Legislature from the Public Records Act approved by voters more than 40 years ago. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)

OLYMPIA – Calling transparency “the cornerstone of democracy,” Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a proposed law that would have exempted the Legislature from the Public Records Act approved by voters more than 40 years ago.

In a late night announcement, Inslee said he had received requests from legislators to let them “start again” – including letters signed by 40 House Democrats and 16 Senate Democrats who originally voted for it. That would be enough to sustain the veto in the House.

House Republicans also sent a letter calling a veto of the bill “a good start.”

“The public’s right to government information is one we hold dearly in Washington,” Inslee said in a news release announcing the veto. “I believe legislators will find they can fulfill their duties while being fully transparent, just like state and local governments all across Washington.”

Legislative leaders and representatives of the state’s news media, which successfully sued the Legislature over its failure to release records, will try to resolve the dispute, he said. An attorney representing news organizations offered ideas on how to resolve what she called “the present impasse.”

The news organizations would join the Legislature in seeking a stay of a recent court order, would not launch an initiative or a referendum to change present law and would “work on a task force with legislators and others to try to resolve our differences,” wrote Michele Earl-Hubbard, of Allied Law Group, representing the media plaintiffs.

The letter from House Democrats said they had heard “loud and clear from our constituents that they are angry and frustrated with the process” by which lawmakers passed the bill.

The legislation included improvements to the current practice on withholding records, they said, but “we made a mistake in failing to go through a full public hearing process on this very important legislation. The hurried process overshadowed the positive reforms in the bill.”

The Legislature exempted itself from the voter-approved Public Records Act last week after losing a court fight with the state’s news media. A coalition led by the Associated Press and joined by The Spokesman-Review challenged the Legislature’s long-held practice of rejecting many requests for public records that other state and local government agencies routinely must fill.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled last month legislators and their offices are subject to the law. Legislators filed a notice of appeal with the state Supreme Court, but last week passed a law exempting themselves from the law Lanese said covered them.

In what may have been record time, Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, co-sponsored a bill that essentially creates a separate public records law for the Legislature.

Less than 24 hours after it was made public, a joint session of Senate and House committees held a “work session” that allowed public testimony but did not require a vote. The next day, the bill was brought to the Senate floor, passed without debate and sent to the House. It passed without debate there in a span of about 20 minutes.

The bill requires legislators to release some records, such as calendars and correspondence with lobbyists, but allows them to withhold other documents. It also requires anyone who has a public records request denied to appeal it to a committee of legislators from the chamber where the request was filed. If that committee upholds the denial, the bill says it is not possible to appeal to the courts.

Disciplinary proceedings also would have been restricted so that the final decisions can be released but not the reports of an investigation leading up to them.

The bill made all of its provisions retroactive, essentially overturning any part of Lanese’s order that didn’t match up with the new law.

The bill passed the Senate 41-7 and the House 83-14, majorities that would be more than enough to override a veto if no votes changed. But public pressure was prompting lawmakers to announce throughout the day Thursday they would not vote to override the veto, culminating with the letter from House Democrats and another from the 48-member House Republican caucus saying they thought the bill was a “step in the right direction” but wished it had been better.

“The people demand disclosure,” the House GOP letter said. “Our constituents demand privacy of victims and witnesses. We agree and continue to support transparency.”

House Republicans blamed the hasty scheduling on Democrats, who control both chambers and the governor’s office. But Democrats were quick to point out that a lawyer for the House GOP participated in drafting the legislation, and leaders from both sides agreed to the rules that limited discussion before the vote.

Also, experts in the Public Records Act have said victims and witnesses can be protected under current exemptions in the existing law.

Earlier in the day, Inslee’s office said it received more than 11,500 emails, 5,590 phone calls and 100 letters on the bill. All of the communication Thursday urged the governor’s veto.