A bill slated to extend certain aspects of the public records act to the Washington State Legislature is dead following a heated public hearing.
Senate Bill 5784, introduced by Senator Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) earlier this month would have removed the legislature’s longstanding exemption to the Washington Public Records Act and added three exemptions for constituent communications, whistleblower information, and records related to the “deliberative process” of lawmakers.
“If we can get the exemptions right, if we can protect that personal identifying information for our constituents, if we can protect our ability to hear from whistleblowers, and if we can protect the deliberative process we go through, then we should just live with what the consequences are for the past records that are going to be disclosed,” said Pedersen at the hearing.
The bill follows in the footsteps of last year’s controversial bill looking to block access to legislative records in the state. Pedersen called the bill a “reasonable middle ground” for both constituents and state legislatures. However, media representatives who spoke out at the February 13th public hearing believed the bill fell short in access to government.
“Last year’s bill and now this add-on is the most misguided attempt I’ve yet seen to try to thwart the Public Records Act and the people’s Right-to-Know,” said Publisher of the Seattle Times, Frank Blethen at the hearing. “The Legislative body should be the role model of strict adherence to the Public Records Act and not taking advantage of the lack of media scrutiny to avoid compliance and accountability.”
Media outlets and transparency advocates took the biggest concern with the bills directive to withhold records generated in the “deliberative process” of lawmaking, or in other words, lawmakers thought process into generating state legislation. These records include draft bills, staff analysis, and communications between lawmakers or staff discussing legislation.
“The permanent exemption that is in this bill for deliberative material and investigative materials seems to us to be a phenomenal overreach. We don’t have a problem with deliberative material being withheld during the legislative process, but when a bill is passed, not necessarily at the end of the session, I think the people need to be able to see how that’s done,” added President of the Allied Daily Newspapers, David Zeeck, during the hearing.
However, state lawmakers hope to find a better solution through a new legislative bill. House Bill 2105 holds its first reading in committee today and aims to address the release of legislative records, but would not require the release of documents held in the past.
With yet another squashed bill addressing the PRA’s application to the legislature, media outlets are looking to the courts for relief. A coalition of ten media organizations are involved in an ongoing lawsuit with the state’s legislature after lawmakers refused to release text messages and emails in 2017.
“We would rather lose the case than have this bill. If we accept this bill, it’s an acquiescence on our part that your positions on the lawsuit are correct because most of them are carried forward in this bill,” noted Rowland Thompson, Executive Director for the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and the Washington Newspapers Publishers Association.
HB 2105 is embedded below.
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