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Friday, August 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

Washington courts likely to decide which legislative records will be open to the public after lawmakers say proposal is dead

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 20, 2019, 12:19 p.m.

OLYMPIA – Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, second from right, chairman of the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations, and Elections Committee, speaks Feb. 13, 2019 during a public hearing on an effort by Washington lawmakers to set limits on what the legislative branch needs to disclose under public disclosure laws. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
OLYMPIA – Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, second from right, chairman of the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations, and Elections Committee, speaks Feb. 13, 2019 during a public hearing on an effort by Washington lawmakers to set limits on what the legislative branch needs to disclose under public disclosure laws. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – An effort to open some legislative records to the public while keeping others secret is likely dead, lawmakers acknowledged Tuesday morning.

The Senate bill, which received criticism from the leaders of news organizations at a hearing last week, is not scheduled for a vote in the Senate State Government committee before this week’s deadline. The House has no plans to introduce its own legislation.

“We were hoping that bill would start a conversation,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

The response from news media representatives, some of whom represent organizations suing the Legislature over refusal to release records, was negative, he said at a press conference for Democratic leader, and “that bill is definitely dead.”

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said his members in the House were hoping the Senate bill would be the vehicle for solving the dispute. “There is not a (House) bill that is out there right now.”

Republicans leaders also said the bill appears dead, insisting that wasn’t their fault because they were in the minority in both chambers. Rep. Morgan Irwin, of Enumclaw, the top Republican on the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee, said they will reintroduce a proposal from last year on making legislative records open.

“We can’t get a hearing on it, that’s not on us,” Irwin said.

But that bill, which would put the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House in charge of public records requests but maintain existing exemptions, has yet to be introduced this year let alone receive a hearing. The deadline for getting a bill out of its first committee is Friday.

Although introduced at the start of the 2018 session, the bill Irwin and other GOP leaders said they’d support didn’t receive a hearing last year, either.

Lawmakers instead focused efforts on an unsuccessful attempt to give themselves special exemptions from the public records law by skirting normal legislative procedures to pass another proposal with no hearing and little debate. That bill was eventually vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee at the request of many legislators who originally voted for it.

The bills are an attempt to solve a legal dispute over what records legislators can refuse to release. Several news organizations in Washington, led by the Associated Press and including The Spokesman-Review, sued the Legislature after lawmakers rejected requests for public records, claiming they were exempt from the 1972 state Public Records Act under legislation they passed in the 1990s. But a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled they are not exempt from releasing some of the records requested, and are covered under the same law that governs other local and state government agencies.

The case has been appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, and is expected to get a hearing later this year. Part of the Senate bill proposed this year would have made that case moot by applying provisions retroactively.

Unless that Senate bill with its retroactive provisions can be resurrected by a parliamentary maneuver and pass, that appeal will continue. “We’ll see what the court says,” Billig said.

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