Journalists across the state are bringing the full force of their influence to stop state legislators from passing a bill that would exempt them from the state's Public Records Act.
In a span of less than 48 hours last week, state lawmakers overwhelmingly approved Senate Bill 6617, self-serving legislation that gives representatives discretion over whether to disclose certain records. In the Senate, a 41-7 vote. Then in the House, 83-14. Without debate, with little notice of a hearing.
A few things to note:
- The votes followed a Thurston County court decision in January that sided with 10 news organizations in a lawsuit against the Legislature; the judge ruled that legislative leaders violated the state's Public Records Act. The Legislature appealed to the state Supreme Court.
- State agencies and other local governments are subject to public disclosure laws. The concerns around the privacy of constituents are not unique to legislative offices; public records officers face this challenge in municipalities and counties all the time.
- The Public Records Act already covers private information legislators have listed as a reason to support the bill. What the bill does, however, is give the Legislature broader authority to decide what's private and what's not.
Now it's up to Governor Jay Inslee on whether he'll veto the bill that had overwhelming support among state legislators; he has until Thursday, and while he's publicly criticized the bill, he hasn't commented on whether he intends to oppose it. (On national TV, he incorrectly said the bill was veto-proof.)
In the meantime, Inslee has received hundreds of calls and emails. The Seattle Times on Tuesday morning published its first front-page editorial since 1908. Editorial page editor Kate Riley wrote that "the Legislature's acts were so antithetical to government transparency and the issue is of such importance to our democracy, today's editorial calling on citizens to take action appears on Page 1."
At least 12 other daily newspapers joined in, including The News Tribune, The Spokesman-Review, The Olympian, The Columbian, Bellingham Herald, The Tri-City Herald, The Yakima Herald-Republic, The Daily Herald, The Wenatchee World, and Ellensburg Daily Record.
Few lawmakers responded publicly to The Seattle Times's requests for comment on their votes. They've said little to nothing to explain why they would pass such controversial legislation so quickly, or why they didn't put it through the typical process of how a bill becomes a law.
Here's one by representative Noel Frame, a Seattle Democrat. (She didn't respond to requests for follow-up Tuesday.)