Inslee must veto shameful public records bill

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has the power to force legislators to reconsider their bad vote on Senate Bill 6617. He should do it straightaway.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has the power to force legislators to reconsider their bad vote on Senate Bill 6617. He should do it straightaway. AP

Publishing an editorial on the front page of The News Tribune is an unusual step we’re taking today at an unusual historic moment — a distressing time when one branch of state government is trying to rewrite the ground rules of openness and accountability.

We can’t stand by while the Washington Legislature takes a jackhammer to the bedrock values enshrined in our state’s Public Records Act (PRA).

We urge Gov. Jay Inslee to respond with his own unusual action. He must veto Senate Bill 6617, send it back to legislators and give them a chance to come to their senses.

If the governor doesn’t act, or if he does and legislators override his veto, we trust voters will keep this infamy in mind during the 2018 elections and beyond.

On Friday, the Senate and House both passed a bill that circumvents a January court decision ordering them to comply with the PRA. Legislators have flouted the law for years, and a coalition of news media organizations led by the Associated Press filed suit last year.

In approving SB6617, legislators officially gifted themselves secrecy privileges that state agencies, city councils, and other local governments don’t enjoy. To make matter worse, concealing records from the public could no longer be challenged in court.

The plan was hatched in the dark by leaders of both parties, then rushed through the Capitol last week with little time for lawmakers or their constituents to digest it. Established public process went by the wayside; there were no committee meetings, public hearings, amendments or floor debate.

Many who voted for the bill are trying to cast it as a victory for transparency. Don’t believe them. That’s like calling blowing one’s nose a victory over the flu.

Yes, the bill would open some calendar items, disciplinary findings and lobbyist communications to public view. But it also allows legislators to cherry-pick from an array of exemptions under the banner of privacy rights and effective governance.

We understand that preserving and releasing records creates additional work for legislators. But convenience wasn’t among the principles held dear by Washington voters when they adopted the PRA in 1972; their intent was made manifest in the law’s preamble: “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

Some Democrats are trying to put a smiley face on this sad bill; by passing it, they say in their talking points, they took a “first step into the sunshine.” But that omits the fact that a judge, the state attorney general and many citizens have told them one step isn’t good enough; they need to walk fully in the sunlight.

Why not return to Olympia next year with a bill that addresses their privacy and records-management concerns, but under the illumination of a full public process? Or why not let their appeal play out in court? What’s the rush?

If any bright side can be found in Friday’s floor action, it’s that a big chunk of the opposition — eight of the 14 “no” votes in the House, and three of the eight nays in the Senate — was made up of Pierce and South King county legislators.

Rep. Melanie Stambaugh summed up the resistance well. The Puyallup Republican issued a statement showing wisdom from the youngest member of the Legislature (and the candor of an elected official who’s not running for reelection).

“I am deeply disappointed in the Legislature’s blatant disregard for transparency in the legislative process,” Stambaugh wrote. “This is a time where the legislature should come together to make government more transparent, not less. The very process utilized to craft and pass this bill violates the public trust.”

That so many members of the local delegation voted against the bill should be a credit to them come election time. Conversely, demerits should be awarded to the dozen or more South Sound lawmakers who endorsed the fiction that they’re above the law.

Some of the bill’s supporters tell us they will exceed its requirements and release more records than they have to. We’ll be sure to test that pledge, in the unfortunate event this stinker becomes law.

Inslee would do well to remember one of his vetoes from last year; he rejected a tax break for manufacturers partly because he didn’t like the way it was jammed through late in the session.

Such a significant change, he said, “should be considered in a thoughtful, transparent process that incorporates public input.”

The governor could echo those words in his veto message for SB6617. He should do all he can to squelch this insidious plan firmly and quickly.