Governor vetoes controversial public records bill

Behind-the-scenes deal negotiated by the governor’s office between lawmakers and media organizations


By Josh Kelety
WNPA Olympia News Bureau

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 and retroactively exempted lawmakers from the state Public Records Act, was rammed through the legislature in under 48 hours on February 23 with no public hearings. It passed both 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.

Sponsored by senate majority leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and senate minority leader, Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, the legislation came on the heels of a January 19 ruling from Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese that lawmakers are subject to the state’s Public Records Act. 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 February 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 the hours leading up to the late-night veto, Inslee’s chief of staff David Postman and his executive director of legislative affairs Drew Shirk, engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations with legislators and newspaper publishers.

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.

The agreement came together in a turbulent and last-minute fashion. On Wednesday, February 28, three regional newspaper publishers participated in a brief conference call with Inslee to voice their concerns and ask him to veto the bill. According to the publisher of the Tacoma News Tribune and The Olympian, David Zeeck, who was on that phone call, Inslee said at the time that he wasn’t sure what he would do.

Over the next 24 hours, Inslee’s staff went back and forth between both sides. The publishers wanted the bill killed and a public stakeholder discussion on public disclosure in the legislature. Lawmakers wanted guarantees that the media organizations would back up their attempt to seek a stay on the enforcement of the court ruling and wouldn’t field a ballot initiative.

On 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.

“It was a promise to the governor to give him information so that he could broker a deal,” Earl-Hubbard said.

Senator Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who helped corral positions from the Senate Democratic caucus along with deputy senate majority leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said that the media’s letter sealed the deal for many of his Democratic colleagues. “The items that were covered in Michele Earl-Hubbard’s letter were the things that we were looking for,” Pedersen said.

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.”

The House GOP letter demands that Speaker of the House, Representative Frank Chopp, D-Seattle hold a hearing on their bill filed late last year, HB 2255 – which would require that legislators be subject to public disclosure laws. The Republicans want their bill heard in the House State Government, Elections, and Information Technology Committee on Wednesday, March 7, which is the day before this year’s session ends.

Representative Paul Graves, R-Fall City, who voted against SB 6617 and is the primary sponsor of HB 2255, said that he hasn’t received confirmation that it will get a hearing.

Earl-Hubbard noted that none of the lawmakers’ letters feature signatures from the House or Senate Democratic and Republican leadership, who are explicitly party to the ongoing lawsuit. “We’ve heard not a lot from the four leaders. Period,” she said.

SB 6617’s sponsors, Senators Nelson and Schoesler, declined to comment for this story.

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