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WA Legislature passes public records exemption bill

Following a ruling that lawmakers had illegally withheld documents, the legislature drafted a bill to exempt themselves from the state's Public Records Act.

It’s rare that a bill moves this quickly and with such overwhelming bipartisan support, but SB 6617 passed within minutes, as the vast majority of lawmakers voted to hide their old records from the public.

Of the 147 elected representatives and senators combined, only 21 opposed the idea.

See below for roll-call of votes in the Senate and House.

“This is just the latest example of us hiding documents from the public,” said Senator Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way. “I believe there’s no reason the legislature needs a different public records act than the executive branch or all of the local governments in the state.”

A judge agreed with that premise, finding Washington’s legislature in violation with the state’s own public disclosure laws. KING 5 was among the media organizations that filed a lawsuit against the legislature and won in court, but the new fast-tracked bill passed with little debate tries to undermine that ruling.

“Judge Lanese’s ruling, the way he tried to apply it to us would suggest that my office is an individual agency, that I have to hire a public records officer, that I have to be open 30 hours a week year-round, so people can come in and inspect my records. That’s just not workable with a part-time citizen legislature,” said Senator Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle.

While Sen. Pederson argues it’s a matter of resources and constituents’ privacy, local governments in Washington state—big and small—have to follow the same public disclosure rules.

Meanwhile, supporters of the controversial exemption bill point out the new legislation expands access to some additional records—such as emails between lawmakers and lobbyists and members’ calendars—starting in July of 2018—but the same bill shields documents prior to that date.

“I’m trying not to hide any records, personally,” said Pedersen. “I think there are some things that my constituents have written to me that they wouldn’t want public.”

While Senator Miloscia acknowledges an argument for certain privacy concerns, he says the policy was never fully debated or digested by lawmakers who rushed through the bill in around 48 hours.

“I think a good public hearing about how do we open up government to the people we’re supposed to serve would have been valuable to all the citizens of our state,” said Miloscia.

But that public hearing never happened -- just a last minute work session 24 hours before the vote on a bill now headed to the governor’s desk with a veto-proof margin.

Governor Inslee has not indicated whether or not he will veto the legislation, forcing lawmakers to take a second vote.

Ultimately, critics of the bill say the voters could have the final say.

“An initiative is where people can overturn our bad decision down here,” said Miloscia.

Meanwhile, the legislature is appealing the January ruling of Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese; the case has been appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court.

Related: Judge rules state lawmakers’ emails, texts are public, via Associated Press

Besides KING 5, the groups involved in the lawsuit are: The AP, public radio's Northwest News Network, KIRO 7, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, The Spokesman-Review, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Sound Publishing, Tacoma News Inc. and The Seattle Times.

How your member voted:

Roll Call - House

Yeas: 83 Nays: 14 Absent: 0 Excused: 1Voting Yea: Representatives Appleton, Barkis, Bergquist, Blake, Buys, Chandler, Chapman, Clibborn, Cody, Condotta, DeBolt, Dent, Doglio, Dolan, Dye, Eslick, Fitzgibbon, Frame, Goodman, Gregerson, Griffey, Haler, Hansen, Hargrove, Harris, Hayes, Holy, Hudgins, Irwin, Jenkin, Jinkins, Johnson, Kagi, Kirby, Klippert, Kloba, Kretz, Kristiansen, Lovick, Lytton, MacEwen, Macri, Manweller, Maycumber, McBride, McCabe, McCaslin, McDonald, Morris, Nealey, Orcutt, Ormsby, Ortiz-Self, Peterson, Pettigrew, Pike, Pollet, Riccelli, Robinson, Rodne, Ryu, Santos, Schmick, Sells, Senn, Shea, Slatter, Springer, Stanford, Steele, Stokesbary, Stonier, Sullivan, Tarleton, Taylor, Tharinger, Valdez, Van Werven, Vick, Volz, Wilcox, Wylie, Chopp

Voting Nay: Representatives Caldier, Fey, Graves, Harmsworth, Kilduff, Kraft, Muri, Orwall, Pellicciotti, Reeves, Sawyer, Stambaugh, Walsh, Young


Excused: Representative Smith

Roll Call - Senate

Yeas: 41 Nays: 7 Absent: 1 Excused: 0

Voting Yea: Senators Angel, Bailey, Becker, Billig, Braun, Brown, Chase, Cleveland, Conway, Darneille, Dhingra, Ericksen, Fortunato, Frockt, Hasegawa, Hawkins, Hobbs, Honeyford, Hunt, Keiser, King, Kuderer, Liias, McCoy, Mullet, Nelson, Padden, Palumbo, Pedersen, Rivers, Rolfes, Saldaña, Schoesler, Sheldon, Short, Takko, Van De Wege, Warnick, Wellman, Wilson, Zeiger

Voting Nay: Senators Baumgartner, Carlyle, Fain, Miloscia, O`Ban, Ranker, Wagoner

Absent: Senator Walsh