All three lawmakers from the 23rd District were among the members of the Washington State Legislature who asked Gov. Jay Inslee Thursday to veto a controversial bill that would have shielded the Legislature from releasing documents to the public under the state’s Public Records Act.
The Legislature has come under withering criticism over the past week after both houses passed SB 6617, a bill that would allow members of the House and Senate to keep secret any documents they view to be correspondence with anyone they considered to be a constituent.
The bill — and the breakneck scramble to get it passed — created a firestorm of controversy after it was approved late last week by a 83-14 vote in the House and a 41-7 vote in the Senate. It was approved over the span of three days as an “emergency” measure with no public hearing.
Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed SB 6617 Thursday, which otherwise would have taken immediate effect with the governor’s signature and would have retroactively exempted the state lawmakers from the Public Records Act.
Critics of the bill, including news organizations across the state, had asked Inslee to veto SB 6617, despite the veto-proof margin of its approval, and Inslee had initially left doubt that he would reject the bill.
Late Thursday, however, Inslee vetoed the bill.
That move came after state lawmakers — both Democratic Party and Republican members — sent multiple letters to the governor, asking him to veto SB 6617.
All three District 23 lawmakers — Sen. Christine Rolfes, Rep. Sherry Appleton and Rep. Drew Hansen — signed letters to Inslee asking for his veto.
In identical letters sent by House and Senate Democrats, legislators said the process for passing the bill was a mistake, but they continued to claim that it would lead to greater transparency in government, a notion that opponents of the bill have derided.
“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,” the letter said.
“We supported the bill because of the important transparency reforms that it would enact,” the lawmakers continued in the letter. “These include requiring that for the first time the Legislature would make public all lobbyist communications with legislators, calendar information for legislators; and records related to completed disciplinary investigations, while preserving privacy protections for constituents.
“However, we made a mistake by failing to go through a full public hearing process on this very important legislation. The hurried process has overshadowed the positive reforms in the bill.”
“We think that the only way to make this right is for you to veto the bill and for us to start again,” the letter said.
Lawmakers also said they would convene a task force of legislators, news media representatives, open government advocates, the offices of the governor and attorney general, and others to begin anew on recommendations on the release of legislative records.
Any consideration of a new bill on legislative records would come in nine months, during the 2019 Legislative Session, according to the letter.
In a letter to the governor from the House Republican Caucus, also sent Thursday, Republicans said Inslee and Democrat leaders “have orchestrated a veto” of the bill and added, “That is a good start.”
Republican House members noted they had their own proposed legislation on public records, and said that SB 6617 “was the only solution allowed by the Democrats.”
“Many of our members thought this was at least a step in the right direction. However, all 48 of our members wished they could have voted for a better bill,” the Republican letter said.
SB 6617 came following a ruling on Jan. 19 from Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese, who found that the Legislature is subject to Washington’s public disclosure laws.
That decision was prompted by a lawsuit against the Legislature by the Associated Press, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and other news organizations after the Legislature rejected media requests for records of any sexual assault and harassment complaints filed against all 147 lawmakers.
Attorneys for the Legislature have appealed the superior court ruling to the state Supreme Court.
Rep. Hansen said Friday he supported the veto because it will give lawmakers a chance to make improvements to the bill now that the court case is on hold.
“I asked the governor to veto the bill because the news media agreed that the court case would be stayed if the governor vetoed the bill, which means the urgency for doing the bill (the risk of release of material the Legislature has historically not treated as subject to the Public Records Act, such as constituent emails) doesn’t exist anymore,” Hansen said.
“Also, the veto gives the Legislature a chance to redo the bill through a more deliberate process, which can now happen while the court case is stayed,” he added.
In a press release after his veto, Inslee noted public outrage over SB 6617 and thanked legislators for reaching an agreement with media organizations to seek a stay of proceedings in the trial court during the appeal of Lanese’s decision, and to not enforce the court’s order during the appeal as discussions continue on the release of legislative records.
“I want to thank the legislators who have reconsidered this bill and asked me for this veto tonight,” Inslee said.
“Since this bill passed, my office and lawmakers have heard an unprecedented level of response from the public. Those messages were heard loudly and clearly. I now hope lawmakers, the media, and other stakeholders will work together to resolve differences through a process the public can have faith in,” Inslee said.
While the governor said he believed lawmakers were trying to improve the access to government records, he also noted he had concerns with SB 6617 and the way it was approved.
“I believe the Legislature’s overwhelming vote on the bill was a good faith attempt to increase disclosure and transparency. Though I expressed concerns about the outline of the bill, I did tell legislators I would let the bill become law if they delivered it with enough votes to override a veto. However, that was before I saw the process which failed to meet public expectations for openness and delivered a bill that fell short.
“I appreciate that both sides have been open to discussions during the past few days and will work together to find the right approach to this important issue.”