The Seattle Times asked all 147 state lawmakers to weigh in on a new bill that keeps their existing records secret. Only a handful responded with comments on Senate Bill 6617 as the measure headed for votes in the Legislature on Friday after just being announced Wednesday.
OLYMPIA — The First Amendment may guarantee free speech, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee that elected officials will speak freely.
Washington has 147 state lawmakers who stand to benefit from the newly introduced bill — approved Friday afternoon in the Legislature — that would keep confidential existing legislative records and make some records public going forward. The Senate passed the bill before 2 p.m. Friday, and the House followed suit a few minutes later.
The Seattle Times on Thursday asked every single lawmaker to comment on Senate Bill 6617, which would remove the Legislature from Washington’s voter-approved Public Records Act. Fewer than 10 lawmakers have since responded with thoughts about the proposal.
Legislative leaders announced SB 6617 Wednesday afternoon and gave it a hearing Thursday, with less than 24 hours’ notice. After that hearing, GOP Sen. Mark Miloscia and Democratic Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, both of Federal Way, said they opposed it.
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The Seattle Times on Thursday afternoon and evening emailed Washington’s 145 other lawmakers with questions about the bill, and asked legislators for their broad thoughts. As of 11:30 a.m. Friday, only seven of those lawmakers had responded with comments on the bill.
The proposal comes after a court in January found legislative leaders in violation of Washington’s Public Records Act by withholding documents such as emails, calendars and disciplinary reports related to sexual harassment.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese wrote in that ruling, “The plain and unambiguous language of the Public Records Act applies to the offices of senators and representatives … ”
That case is being appealed and may end up before the state Supreme Court.
SB 6617 would make public some emails and calendar items starting July 1, but would keep emails between lawmakers and constituents confidential.
The bill also would prevent independent judicial review of challenges to the proposed records law. Instead, two committees of those lawmakers would review challenges of people seeking records.
In an email, Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place, said the bill “wholly disrupts” Washington state’s transparency laws.
“Succinctly put, the bill is a body slam to open government and the accountability that our citizens expect and deserve,” wrote Kilduff, who added she would vote against it.
Rep. Kristine Reeves, D-Federal Way, said she also opposes the bill. Other lawmakers who responded to The Times’ inquiry said they support the proposal.
Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, noted in an email that the bill creates “substantial new categories of records,” such as lawmakers’ calendars, and emails sent between legislators and lobbyists. “I view it as a step toward transparency,” he added.
Pedersen argued the bill’s process for addressing disputes over open records through two legislative committees is appropriate.
“House Executive Rules and Senate F&O (Facilities and Operations) are well-positioned to administer this process and handle appeals quickly and efficiently,” wrote Pedersen, who chairs the Senate Law and Justice Committee and also is an attorney. “Their meetings are open to the public.”
Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said the Legislature is a more politically focused branch of government, compared with state agencies and offices like that of the governor.
Having lawmakers’ records completely open, with disputes over access settled through the court system, would allow opposing political interests to constantly attack lawmakers, Rolfes said in an interview.
She pointed to the increasing number of campaign-finance complaints filed in recent years — many of which have been deemed frivolous — through the Public Disclosure Commission and Attorney General’s Office.
“Every single one of us would be potentially, constantly harassed” by political operatives or organizations, Rolfes said.