A legal challenge to the Legislature's long-claimed public-records exemption still awaits the state Supreme Court. Meanwhile, House Republicans say they may introduce a bill that would effectively open up lawmakers' records going forward.
OLYMPIA — Blaming the media and open-government advocates, Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday that their latest proposal to govern the Legislature’s release of its own records is all but dead.
The demise of Senate Bill 5784 likely puts a hold on the debate over the Legislature’s long-claimed exemption to the state Public Records Act until the state Supreme Court hears a pending case.
The justices are expected to rule on a January 2018 Thurston County Superior Court decision that found legislative leaders had violated the law by withholding records. Several media organizations brought that challenge, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times.
This year, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said he introduced SB 5784 as “a good-faith offer at a compromise” while the legal challenge awaits scheduling before the state Supreme Court.
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But in a hearing last week, Pedersen’s proposal drew harsh criticism from open-government advocates and former and current newspaper publishers, including Frank Blethen of The Seattle Times.
“We introduced the bill as an attempt to compromise, and folks in the media made it clear they were not interested in potential revisions to it,” Pedersen said Tuesday.
In a regularly scheduled news conference Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, nearly all but ruled out bringing forward a new proposal.
Despite the bill’s demise, a good chunk of time remains in this year’s 105-day regular legislative session, and the issue could come roaring back in some unforeseen way.
That happened last year, when lawmakers introduced and passed a bill in 48 hours that removed the Legislature from the Public Records Act and made some of their records public going forward.
Such machinations were met with sturdy public disapproval. Approximately 19,000 people contacted Gov. Jay Inslee, who ultimately vetoed the bill.
One GOP proposal to effectively open up the Legislature’s public records might be reintroduced this year, according to House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.
Wilcox said House Republicans may revive a bill from last year, from then-Rep. Paul Graves, R-Fall City. Graves had sponsored House Bill 2255, which would have made the Legislature subject to the Public Records Act going forward once the legislation was passed.
Graves, who lost his election last year in King County’s 5th District, was one of just a handful of legislators who voted against last year’s ill-fated proposal.
That proposal, which had one Republican and two Democratic co-sponsors, never got a public hearing, much less a committee vote and debate on the House floor.
“We would like to move forward based on Paul Graves’ bill,” Wilcox said Tuesday at a regularly scheduled news conference. “And I think in general our caucus has been for the maximum amount of openness.”
But that proposal is unlikely to gain traction in the Democratic-held House and Senate.
Even as local, county and state government agencies routinely release documents like emails and calendars under Washington’s transparency laws, the Legislature has long claimed it is exempt from that law.
The Thurston County ruling found that lawmakers’ individual offices are subject to Washington’s 1972 voter-approved transparency laws, and thus must release documents.