A House committee Friday approved a bill that exempts birth dates of state and local government employees from the state’s public records law, but allows the media continued access to them.
The panel voted 7-1, but did not talk about what state Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, called a “phantom presence”: how the bill would affect the Freedom Foundation. The Olympia-based free-market think tank has used public records requests to contact government employees and inform them about their rights under a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
That decision, commonly referred to as Janus, struck down what were known as public union “agency fees,” charged to nonunion members at rates of about three-quarters of full union dues.
Although state workers said House Bill 1888 is needed to protect them from identity theft, stalkers, and others who may want to target them at home, the real reason public-sector unions want the new law is to make it more difficult for the Freedom Foundation to contact state workers, said Maxford Nelsen, the group’s director of labor policy.
“We’re the chief targets of the bill. The whole goal of the bill is to limit our ability to communicate with union-represented public employees about their constitutional right to make their own decisions about union membership and dues payment. The less information of public employees that we’re able to access, the fewer people we’re able to contact,” Nelsen said.
If the bill becomes law, state and local government agencies also would be required to notify employees and their unions whenever a public request is made for employee information.
“I guarantee you that is purely so that unions can try to tie up the requests in court,” said Nelsen. “That’s exactly what we have seen over the last five years. We’ll submit a request for records that are clearly disclosable under the law. If the union finds out about it or the employer tells the union about the request, then the unions immediately will file suit.”
Leanne Kunze, executive director of the Olympia-based American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 28, said the Freedom Foundation only became an issue when the nonprofit group opposed HB 1888.
“They say they want this information to be able to contact public employees to convince them to give up their rights and their voice. There is a First Amendment-protected right for freedom of association and the freedom to join a union just as much as it is the freedom to refrain from joining a union.
“So the propaganda is very frustrating that they can hide behind the First Amendment, when we, too, believe and very much want to protect First Amendment rights that includes media access for government transparency,” Kunze said.
Several social media posts question why only media should have access to birth dates and pictures of state and local government employees.
“It is a dangerous path to start treating the media differently than citizens on the right to public records,” wrote Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, in a blog post Friday.
State Rep. Mia Gregerson, the SeaTac Democrat who is chairperson of the House State Government and Tribal Relations Committee, said journalists need access to birth dates. They use them as primary identifiers to make sure investigative articles about government wrongdoing are accurate.
“They’re the watchdogs,” she said.
Walsh, the committee’s sole no vote, said he’s concerned about creating two classes of people who file public records requests and also whether the bill will face legal challenges if it becomes law.
Nelsen said that’s a definite possibility.
“It’s going to be highly dependent on the final text of the bill, of course. Given past history on this, I’m sure whatever happens, there is going to be additional litigation,” he said.