Washington lawmakers are fast-tracking a bill to exempt themselves from the state’s voter-approved Public Records Act. The move comes after the Legislature lost a public records lawsuit filed by several news outlets, including public radio. That lawsuit is now on appeal.
At an informal work session Thursday, newspaper lobbyist Rowland Thompson criticized the contents of the bill and the timeline.
“It’s breathtaking to have a bill show up this late in session on this most important issue and for the Legislature to step into an ongoing lawsuit at this moment, albeit not going well for you,” Thompson said. “But we are the plaintiffs in that case and I am a plaintiff in that case.”
Thompson criticized the fact the bill would exempt records including allegations against lawmakers of sexual harassment or misconduct. Formal discipline of any lawmakers would be releasable.
The bill was introduced this week, skipped the public hearing process and is scheduled for a rapid vote in the House and Senate Friday.
In January, Thurston County Judge Chris Lanese ruled that state lawmakers are subject to the state’s public disclosure laws. That means their records such as calendars and emails are subject to disclosure if the public or members of the media request them.
Historically, lawmakers have maintained that those records are exempt from disclosure because of how legislative records are defined in the law.
After Thursday’s work session, at least two state lawmakers said they would vote against the public disclosure bill.
“The Legislature is deciding to treat itself differently from every other government that we have,” Republican state Sen. Mark Miloscia said. “All of us need to work by the same rules of integrity, ethics, transparency.”
“If the court has spoken, we should just honor what the court has already said related to the law in this manner,” said Democratic state Rep. Mike Pellicciotti.
The named sponsors of the bill are Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, a Democrat, and Republican leader Mark Schoesler. Neither appeared at the work session, but in a statement Nelson called the bill a “bipartisan, middle ground approach that strikes a good balance between privacy, transparency and the legislature’s ability to do its job.”
The bill includes an emergency clause, which would allow it to take effect immediately after it’s signed into law. That would also preclude the public from attempting to repeal it by referendum.