Inslee vetoes public records bill

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OLYMPIA — Facing “unprecedented” pressure from a surge of Washingtonians who wrote and called with their concerns, Gov. Jay Inslee late Thursday night vetoed a measure pushed by state legislators to exempt themselves from public records laws.

It was uncertain what action Inslee would take as the day began Thursday, which was the last day the governor could act before the measure automatically became law. It was expected that lawmakers would quickly coalesce to override a veto, but a last-minute compromise was reached between legislators and the media groups suing them for violations of public records laws.

Media groups — helmed by the Associated Press — were winning that lawsuit, which said lawmakers were subject to records requests and had for decades illegally acted as though they were not. A Thurston County Superior Court Judge ruled in favor of the media mid January. The prospect of being forced to comply with sunshine laws was promptly followed by the legislature fast-tracking legislation to keep their records hidden.

Both sides agreed during Thursday night’s parley to jointly ask for a stay from last month’s ruling, which means the legislature does not have to comply with the judge’s order until the appeals process concludes. Media groups also agreed to not file an initiative while the lawsuit proceeds and will participate in discussions with lawmakers regarding the management of public records.

With a compromise reached, letters were sent to Inslee from three caucuses — House and Senate Democrats and House Republicans — asking the governor to veto the measure.

Democrats from the House and Senate said they recognized the anger and frustration of constituents, but only addressed reaction to the process by which the bill passed, not the equally derided content of the bill. By Friday night, Inslee’s office alone had received tens of thousands of calls and emails, many of which not only took issue with the breakneck pace of the bill’s passage, but also with the legislative secrecy brought on by the bill’s substance.

These complaints were ignored in identical letters from Senate and House Democrats, which claimed that the only mistake made was the failure to hold a full public hearing process. In these letters, Democrats repeated the claim that the bill would have led to improved transparency.

House Republicans sent a letter to Inslee placing that blame squarely on Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers, which said that “all 48 of our members wished they could have voted for a better bill.” However, there was no debate from Republicans on the House floor to that effect before they voted overwhelmingly in favor of the measure.

Every state lawmaker from Central Washington voted in favor of the measure. Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, declined to comment. Schoesler, the Senate minority leader, was a co-sponsor of the bill.

Yesterday evening, Manweller retweeted a call from Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, for Democratic leadership to step down in the wake of the public records measure, which Manweller called a debacle.

He responded via email to the Herald Sunday.

“What I think is a “debacle” is that the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate no longer can negotiate on behalf of their caucus,” Manweller wrote. “This is the third time we have negotiated a compromise with them and then their rank and file members refused to support the deal (B&O tax reduction, Hirst, public records) From a strictly negotiating standpoint, we can’t negotiate with people on behalf of their caucus if they don’t have the confidence of their caucus.”

“I do believe the media response to this bill was way over the top. Let’s remember that this bill (with two huge moves in their direction) maintained what had been the status quo for over 30 years! And yet a bill that increased transparency in two significant ways was portrayed as the end of open government as we know it,” Manweller wrote. “The media had managed to hold legislators accountable for 30 years without the PRA applying to the Legislature. But now they were editorializing that maintaining what had always been was somehow a massive rollback of openness (even though we agreed to disclose everything but private personal communications for constituents.”

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