These are examples of public records and why they are important.
Newspapers across Washington state made history with front-page editorials. Twitter went berserk. Phone calls and emails, meanwhile, flooded Gov. Jay Inslee’s office in record-breaking quantities.
But why exactly are people angry over the new public-records law?
Here is a guide for understanding the bill, following lawmakers’ quick approval of it last week.
Public Records Bill
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What are public records?
Emails, calendars, receipts, investigative reports, recorded phone calls, text messages, web-browser data — any and all government communication on taxpayers’ dime.
Why are they important?
These records tell us who is trying to influence government agencies and officials, or how those in power are spending time and money.
Without such records, journalists and the public face incredible challenges piecing together stories on everything from child abuse to wildlife poaching to catastrophic tragedies such as the deadly 2014 Oso landslide.
They are crucial for a functional democracy that holds its elected leaders accountable.
What does the Legislature’s new public-records law do?
The Public Records Act applies to both local and state government bodies.
Senate Bill 6617 pertains to legislative records, specifically.
It makes some of them public, such as lawmakers’ calendars and their email exchanges with registered lobbyists that are created after July 1.
But it keeps private those records already in existence.
How did we get here?
The swift work by the Legislature last week — and alarm among journalists and constituents afterward — is a milestone in the state’s decades-long debate over access to legislators’ records.
“Our whole concept of democracy is based on an informed and involved citizenry,” says a flier for a 1972 ballot measure, Initiative 276, which voters approved, ultimately creating the state’s modern public-records law. “High on the list of causes of this citizen distrust are secrecy in government and the influence of private money on governmental decision making.”
But legislative attorneys have interpreted the law as excluding lawmakers from stricter disclosure rules that apply to other elected officials and agencies.
Meanwhile, media organizations argue that interpretation is wrong and hundreds of important records are being withheld by the state House and Senate, depriving the public of essential information.
Why is there a change to the state’s Public Records Act now?
Media outlets, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times, sued the Washington Legislature over the records issue in September.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled, in part, with the journalists, saying the Public Records Act applied to the offices of lawmakers, but didn’t cover the administrative offices of the state House and Senate. After the court ruling, momentum to change the state’s Public Records Act revved up at the Capitol, including bills to remove birth dates from public records for state employees and voters. Journalists argued those measures would make it more difficult to investigate problems in government or voter registration rolls, or broader issues in which those records can be used.
Then came Senate Bill 6617.
The House and Senate on Friday passed the bill on votes of 83-14 and 41-7, respectively — only 48 hours after the bill became public, and without giving the proposal any public hearings or floor debate.
What happens next?
Gov. Jay Inslee has the final say.
He will veto or allow the law to go into effect by the end of day Thursday.
If he vetoes it, the Legislature will have time to override the veto with a vote before the session ends next week.
And while the Legislature passed the measure with a majority large enough to override a veto last week, it’s unclear whether legislators would hold their ground and vote the same.
Material from The Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press contributed to this report.