As of Thursday, March 1, 2018
OLYMPIA State lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are pushing a bill to exempt themselves from public records requests.
The move comes on the heels of a court ruling that the Legislature is required to adhere to the state’s open government laws.
The bill, SB 6617, would directly amend the state’s Public Records Act to explicitly exempt the state Legislature — this includes its employees, agencies and members — from the law’s disclosure requirements retroactively and starting immediately.
The legislation is expected to get a floor vote in both chambers of the legislature today.
The bill would exempt from disclosure records such as correspondence between lawmakers and anyone they consider to be constituents, which is broadly defined as individuals who aren’t registered as official lobbyists or people who employ registered lobbyists.
In January, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled against the Legislature in a lawsuit filed by several news organizations, including the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.
The judge ruled that the Legislature is subject to the Public Records Act. The lawmakers promptly appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, which has not yet decided the matter.
The lawsuit came after news organizations’ records requests for any documentation of sexual assault complaints against the 147 lawmakers were denied last year.
The bill, introduced Wednesday, is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Sen. Sharon Nelson, D–Maury Island, and Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R–Ritzville.
In a rare joint statement, leadership from both parties praised the bill as a compromise between government transparency and the privacy of people’s correspondence with lawmakers.
In the statement, Sen. Nelson said that the bill is a “middle ground approach” that “strikes a good balance between privacy, transparency and the Legislature’s ability to do its job.”
News organizations and government transparency advocates quickly lambasted the proposal as a way for lawmakers to get around the court’s ruling by not only shielding the Legislature from the Public Records Act, but also applying the exemption retroactively.