Governor vetoes controversial public records bill

By Josh Kelety WNPA Olympia News Bureau | Mar 07, 2018
Gov. Jay Inslee

In a down-to-the-wire decision, Governor Jay Inslee vetoed a controversial bill that would have immediately exempted the state Legislature from public disclosure law three hours before the bill would have been enacted into law.

At 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 1, Inslee’s office sent out a press release stating that the governor had vetoed the legislation, SB 6617, after securing an agreement between lawmakers and media organizations for a compromise.

“The public’s right to government information is one we hold dearly in Washington,” Inslee said in a written statement. “Transparency is a cornerstone of a democratic government.”

The bill, which would have immediately exempted lawmakers from the state Public Records Act, was rammed through the Legislature in under 48 hours on Feb. 23 with no public hearings. It passed the state House and Senate with supermajority margins and no floor debate, prompting outrage from media outlets, open government advocates, and the public. The governor’s office was inundated with thousands of angry constituent phone calls and emails over the next six days.

The decree stemmed from an ongoing lawsuit against the Legislature by the Associated Press, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, and other media organizations, who sued last year for lawmakers’ internal communications and records pertaining to alleged sexual harassment incidents.

Washington legislators have routinely denied records requests in the past on the grounds that public disclosure laws don’t apply to them.

The bill’s rapid-fire passage in the Legislature prompted a statewide backlash. On Feb. 27, 13 daily newspapers across Washington published editorials calling on Inslee to veto the legislation. By March 1, the governor’s office had received nearly 12,000 emails, 5,600 phone calls, and over 100 letters from constituents regarding the bill. In his statement, Inslee called the public reaction “unprecedented.”

Inslee had until 11:59 p.m. on March 1 to decide whether to sign the bill, veto it entirely, partially veto it, or let it pass without his signature.

He faced the prospect that Legislators might override his veto with the supermajority vote of approval the bill had already received.

In exchange for a veto from the governor and no override vote from the Legislature, the media organizations—the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Legislature—will join the defendants in seeking a stay on enforcement of the ruling while the matter proceeds in an appeal now before the state Supreme Court. Furthermore, the news media plaintiffs agreed not to field a ballot initiative to overturn the Legislature’s action, and would help lawmakers craft public records legislation in 2019.

On Thursday March 1, Inslee’s staff requested letters from both the publishers and lawmakers clarifying their positions and their intended actions in the event that he vetoed the legislation.

Michele Earl-Hubbard, the attorney representing the media organizations in the lawsuit, drafted the plaintiff’s letter, which was sent to the Inslee’s office at around 5 p.m. on March 1.

House and Senate Democrats also authored letters late Thursday afternoon endorsing the veto. “We have heard loud and clear from our constituents that they are angry and frustrated with the process by which we passed ESB 6617,” both letters read. “We think that the only way to make this right is for you to veto the bill and for us to start again.”

The entire House Republican caucus also authored a letter, but with a different tack. They endorsed a veto decision, but laid the blame for the controversial bill with House and Senate Democrats—despite the fact that most House Republicans voted for it.

“As members of the minority caucus we don’t get to choose which bills run or when they run … SB 6617 was the only solution allowed by the Democrats,” the letter states. “All 48 of our members wished they could have voted for a better bill.”

 

 

 

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