The bill would have exempted the Legislature from Washington’s voter-approved Public Records Act but made some records public.
OLYMPIA — After a week of fierce public outcry, Gov. Jay Inslee Thursday night vetoed a controversial public-records bill that Washington state lawmakers hurriedly approved last week.
Inslee’s veto came as part of a broader deal between lawmakers and the news organizations that in September brought a legal challenge to the Legislature’s longstanding claim that it’s exempt from Washington’s voter-approved Public Records Act.
In a news release, Inslee declared that lawmakers, plaintiffs and others would work together on a more deliberate approach to crafting transparency laws for the Legislature.
“I applaud Washingtonians for making their voices heard as well as legislators’ thoughtful reconsideration,” Inslee said in his veto message of Senate Bill 6617.
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The veto marks a stunning turnaround since last Friday, when legislators voted overwhelmingly to pass the bill that would have exempted the Legislature from the Public Records Act.
Between then and late Thursday afternoon, about 19,000 phone calls, emails and letters had poured into the governor’s office — almost all of them urging Inslee to oppose the bill.
As part of the agreement, the plaintiffs will join lawmakers in asking Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese to grant a stay in his January ruling that found legislative leaders had violated the Public Records Act by denying requests for records.
That ruling is being appealed, and may wind up before the State Supreme Court.
Among other things, the plaintiffs — a media coalition that includes The Associated Press and The Seattle Times — also agreed not to seek court enforcement of the judge’s ruling while the order is being appealed.
The coalition agreed not to push for an initiative or a referendum to change existing law while a stay is in effect, or while they worked with legislators on the issue.
And they pledged to work alongside lawmakers and others on a task force aimed at resolving differences over how transparency laws apply at the Legislature.
“It is our belief the public has the right to weigh in on any potential changes to public records law before it is enacted,” wrote Michele Earl-Hubbard, an attorney for the media group, in a letter describing the understanding.
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For their part, legislators agreed not to override Inslee’s veto.
Lawmakers approved the legislation 48 hours after announcing it, and without public hearings or floor debate.
But their swift action and lack of public comment on the bill drew blowback from state residents, open-government advocates and news organizations.
In identical letters sent to Inslee Thursday night and signed by 16 Senate Democrats and 41 House Democrats, the caucuses wrote they “made a mistake by failing to go through a full public hearing process on this very important legislation.”
“We think that the only way to make this right is for you to veto the bill and for us to start again,” they wrote.
The entire House Republican caucus also sent Inslee a letter saying that a veto was “a good start” and asked that the House hold a hearing next week on a Republican bill that would have applied the Public Records Act to the Legislature but that never received a hearing.
SB 6617 would have kept lawmakers’ existing records secret and made a few types of records public beginning in July. Those records would include lawmakers’ calendars, correspondence with lobbyists and final disciplinary reports, such as for sexual harassment complaints.
The bill would have kept confidential emails between legislators, and correspondence between lawmakers and their constituents, among other documents.
Anyone wanting to challenge a records denial would have had to seek review by the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee or the House Executive Rules Committee, whose rulings would be final and no review by the courts would have been allowed.
Lawmakers had argued the records exemptions were necessary for them to craft legislation and to protect sensitive information that constituents send them.
But open-government groups blasted the bill, and criticized the rushed and secret process by which lawmakers drafted and passed it.
Between the bill’s passage and late Thursday afternoon, Inslee’s office had received more than 12,500 emails and 6,350 phone calls from people about the bill, according to a spokesman for the governor. Inslee had also received more than 100 letters sent through the mail.
Almost all of those messages opposed the legislation, the governor’s office said.
Inslee had also heard from Metropolitan King County Council members Reagan Dunn and Joe McDermott, who wrote a letter asking that Inslee veto the bill.
The state Sunshine Committee, which is tasked with recommending changes to the Legislature on the Public Records Act, had also urged the governor to veto the bill.