Lawmakers vote themselves out of public records requests

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OLYMPIA — With a speed few in the state capitol have ever seen, lawmakers in the Senate and the House voted within minutes of each other to exempt themselves from public records laws — laws that every other governmental agency in the state is subject to.

Quietly buried between a bump stock ban and a budget, the bill would allow lawmakers to withhold all but certain records from the public. The measure was pushed through the legislature over the course of 48 hours, bypassing normal processes like public hearings and committee votes that allow for citizen input, often taking weeks or months. By comparison, a 2017 bill exempting water slides from certain permit fees took 40 times as long from start to finish.

There was overwhelming bipartisan support for the bill, with the Senate voting 41-7 and the House voting 83-14 in favor, a veto-proof majority. Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, was the only legislator elected east of the Cascades who voted against the measure.

This comes as lawmakers appeared to be losing a lawsuit filed by the AP and other media groups that argued the legislature was subject to public records laws.

The lawsuit began over records requests of sexual harassment complaints against elected officials, which have regularly surfaced over the years but surged to the fore since the start of the #MeToo movement late last year. Following accusations of misconduct against two former Democratic lawmaker during their time in office, more than 170 women — legislative staff, lawmakers and lobbyists — signed a letter last November calling for changes in the capitol’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

Allegations that Rep. David Sawyer, D-Parkland, created a hostile work environment have surfaced in recent days, and Democratic leadership has restricted Sawyer’s contact with staff. Accusations surfaced in 2017 that Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, sexually harassed students of his at Central Washington University as well as a legislative assistant for a committee Manweller headed. After the accusations became public, Manweller stepped down from his leadership position in the House and has been put on leave at CWU.

Manweller declined to comment on why he voted for the measure, saying he didn’t want to “add or take away from the caucus’ statement.”

There was no debate on either the Senate or the House floor. Non-partisan policy research organization Olympia Watch Saturday released a statement by Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, who said that legislators were not allowed to argue against the bill on the House floor. Some legislators spoke in support of the bill, saying that it would create more transparency.

“This bill very simply to me is going to expand and reveal lobbyist communication, which is something I think we all agree with,” said Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, “Currently that is not disclosable. This bill is protecting the integrity of this institution.”

Shea made no mention that lobbyist communications are currently not disclosed only because lawmakers are breaking the law.

While the proposal would lead to more transparency than is current practice, a superior court judge ruling in favor of media groups last month found that legislators are subject to public records laws and have been illegally withholding their records for years. The bill passed Friday calls for significantly less disclosure than was required by the laws that lawmakers ignored.

The final clause of the bill states the legislation will be effective the moment it is signed into law, where most take effect 90 days after the end of the legislative session, because the measure is “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety, or support of the state government and its existing public institutions.” A citizen’s referendum, which has lower barriers to entry than initiatives, wouldn’t be allowed by state law due to this emergency clause.

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