Shenanigans abound at state Capitol this year

Jason Mercier is is government reform director for Washington Policy Center.
Jason Mercier is is government reform director for Washington Policy Center. Courtesy photo

During my nearly 20 years in policy analysis, I’ve never seen anything quite like the 2018 legislative session.

Among some of the unusual developments were floor protests resulting in lawmakers of one party not even voting on a bill, and more than 19,000 Washingtonians rising up to demand government transparency.

While every session has good and bad moments, let’s look at the truly outrageous actions in Olympia over the past few months.

First , there was the effort to deny the right of homecare workers, recently recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, not to be forced to join a union.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Harris v Quinn that the forced unionization of individual home care providers who are designated state employees “solely for the purposes of collective bargaining” is unconstitutional.

What’s a union to do? One strategy would be to persuade workers to join voluntarily. Another would be to ask the governor and Legislature to work around the Supreme Court and force homecare workers to join the SEIU 775 union anyway. That was the approach taken by sponsors of SB 6199.

SEIU executives have refused to answer media questions about SB 6199’s connections to union campaign giving. Thanks to public records, however, we know the bill was introduced as a direct result of a request from SEIU to Gov. Jay Inslee. A confidential June 2014 memo outlines ways to get around a Supreme Court ruling. That insider plan ended up as the text of SB 6199.

When Republicans in the House attempted to expose these facts, they were ruled out of order by Democratic floor leaders. After several hours of obstructed debate, Republicans said they’d had enough and walked off the House floor protesting what they called censorship of open debate.

When the vote was finally taken in the House the tally read 50-0, because all 48 Republicans refused to take part.

Before you think that was the extent of the outrageous legislative action in 2018, look at what happened on SB 6617. That bill sparked an unprecedented public outcry that forced lawmakers to relent.

To fully appreciate the problem with SB 6617 we need a quick history lesson.

In 1972, the voters adopted one of the strongest public records laws in the country. That combined with the state’s open meetings law declares:

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

Over the years, however, the Legislature felt it should benefit from a double standard and tried to exempt some records from public disclosure. The situation came to a boil last year, when media groups requested details about sexual harassment complaints made against lawmakers.

When that records request was rejected, a coalition of newspapers, radio and TV news stations filed a lawsuit saying the Legislature was breaking the public records law.

In January, Washington’s attorney general and a Thurston County Superior Court judge agreed that lawmakers are in fact subject to public records, just like local officials. (The ruling is currently under appeal.)

Several bills were introduced (HB 2255, HB 2886 and SB 6139) to set up how the Legislature should handle public records, but none were acted on. That all changed on Feb. 21, when a brand-new bill that had never been publicly discussed was introduced and quickly passed just 48 hours later.

This blitzkrieg process to adopt SB 6617 happened by canceling the normal process of public hearings and committee debate. Seeing how lawmakers used this bill to vacate the trial court’s ruling that lawmakers are subject to public records, instead setting up a different type of disclosure process than applies to other government officials, the public response was less than charitable.

In fact, as a result of the secretive process and content of SB 6617, all the state’s major newspapers ran front-page editorials calling on the governor to veto the bill. The public weighed in too, with more than 19,000 Washingtonians contacting Inslee to demand a veto.

Eventually, after first saying he wouldn’t stop the bill, Inslee on March 1 vetoed SB 6617. We’re now hopeful we can have a real public process to make lawmakers subject to the same openness that applies to all other elected officials.

As you can see, the 2018 session was full of truly outrageous developments. It is now up to Inslee to decide if SB 6199 becomes law. As for the Legislature’s public records, stay tuned for more debate on that issue during the 2019 session.

Jason Mercier is government reform director for Washington Policy Center, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization with offices in Tri-Cities, Spokane, Seattle and Olympia. Online at www.washingtonpolicy.org