SB 6617: The Good, the Bad, and the Really Really Ugly
by Kathy Sakahara, LWVWA Democracy Issue Chair

Let’s Start with the Really, Really Ugly: The Process, or Lack Thereof:

SB 6617 was dropped on Wednesday, February 21, though not officially introduced until Thursday, February 22. Simultaneously Thursday morning as it was introduced, the rules were suspended and it was placed on Second Reading, which meant the bill could be voted on at any time. No referral to committee, no real opportunity for public input. Leadership announced that there would be no amendments considered.

This exceptional process would be of concern on any bill. When it happens on a bill that deals with the legislature’s transparency, or lack thereof, it is especially troubling. And especially ugly. It sends the message that the legislature has something to hide. That was a message being picked up and echoed by media across the state.

While we are happy that this bill is apparently the result of negotiation between two political parties, the public has been totally left out of the process. We have attempted to talk to some legislators about possible amendments that would meet the most critical needs without fundamentally overturning the intent of the Public Records Act. We are extremely disappointed to learn that this bill could not be amended. So, while there was a very brief opportunity for public comment for those who could respond on very short notice, the message was very clear that public comment would not be taken into consideration. This is not the way an effective government functions.

Because there was no hearing, just a hastily called work session that allowed public testimony,  the public not only had no input, they didn't hear the other side of the story. At almost every hearing the sponsor of the bill is present and testifies on the reasons behind the bill. None of the people involved in drafting this legislation were part of the work session so did not take the opportunity to defend it or explain the benefits of it. The legislators in attendance were “learning about it as we go.” So there was no public airing of the benefits of the bill (and there definitely are some), or why legislators felt it was necessary.

In our efforts to encourage citizen engagement and education, we far too often run up against distrust and cynicism about government. Passage of this bill on this time schedule will reinforce that belief more than we can measure.

The Bad: 
The bill contains a number of provisions that we see as problematic. This includes the lack of an opportunity to appeal a decision on a public records request. Deadline for a response to public records request is at best ill-defined. And as a final insult to public engagement, the bill included an “emergency clause” which meant it will go into effect right away and cannot be overturned by a referendum from the people.
The Good: 
While the headlines focus on the fact that the bill states the legislature is exempt from the official Public Records Act (PRA), the next statement is “the legislature is subject to separate disclosure requirements.” The bill then goes on to establish a number of specific requirements regarding public records that do not currently exist in law. These include the release of calendars, names of those met with and communication with lobbyists. None of this is required under current law, nor has it been part of general practice. What is specifically exempted is personal correspondence with constituents, which often contains very personal Information. 

Here are some of the comments we have received from legislators:

“At the end of the day, it is the most extensive expansion of disclosure in decades. It will require disclosure of the kind of information people most want – meetings and communications with lobbyists." (Rep. Hudgins, 11th district)

“We have to balance (the obligation to protect the privacy of our constituents against the public interest in transparency of our government. The key word is BALANCE. ….And to be clear, this bill EXPANDS the information the legislature shares with the public today. Is it good enough? Nope. Was the process to getting to this proposal ideal? Absolutely not.” (Rep. Frame, 36th district)

“Many e-mails are from advocacy groups. Some are friendly, some not. Should a marketing firm be allowed to do a records request to my office for everyone who has e-mailed me about gun safety? Should an advocacy group like the NRA be allowed to request all of my emails from people who support common sense gun restrictions?” (Sen. Kuderer, 48th district)

“The bill also adds substantial new categories of records (including legislators’ calendars and letters and e-mails from lobbyists) that will be subject to public disclosure. These documents have never been public before. The legislature will also create a new public records office and has funded several positions in the supplemental budget to staff it. I view these changes as a significant step toward transparency...If constituents knew that their correspondence could wind up on the front page of the Seattle Times, I believe that it would have a significantly chilling effect.” (Sen. Pedersen, 43rd district)

Whatever the legitimate reasons for this bill, those reasons will forever be overshadowed by the fact that this was crafted behind closed doors without any benefit of sunshine.

The League's Response: 

The League, along with others, learned of SB 6617 Thursday morning. LWVWA did not take a formal position before the work session Thursday at noon because we had not had time to thoroughly vet the bill, and the lawsuit that was the motivation behind the bill. The League prides itself on being very careful to avoid taking a position on a bill until we have fully researched an issue. We wish that the legislature would hold itself to the same high standard.

After watching the hastily called House and Senate Government Committees work session, and holding consultations with allies and key legislators, the League issued an Urgent Action Alert Thursday evening. And the response was tremendous!

Thank you to over 500 people who responded sending over 1500 emails in less than 24 hours to legislators expressing your concerns with the process.

The League also sent written comments to the committee members, leadership, and members of both the Senate and House prior to them convening for a vote early Friday afternoon.

Next Steps: 

The Governor has already indicated that he will not veto the bill because its passage was by a comfortable, veto-proof margin. Major media outlets have banded together to call for a veto anyway, at least as a symbolic gesture. If the Governor could veto the process, LWVWA would join that call. He can't, nor can he veto the optics. So, the bill will undoubtedly become law.

But that is not the end of the story.

Developing good public policy is a marathon, not a sprint. Open government advocates, including LWVWA, and a number of legislators agree that the subject of public disclosure on legislative records needs further examination and additional legislation. LWVWA will be working with others to develop good public policy for the 2019 legislative session. If you would like to be involved in that work, please click here.

We may have lost this lap, but race is not over. (No more war analogies from this writer!)

The League of Women Voters of Washington is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization.
The League of Women Voters of Washington Education Fund is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. LWVWA Education Fund contributions are tax-deductible to the extent allowable by law. The League of Women Voters Education Fund does not endorse the contents of any web pages to which it links.

League of Women Voters of the United States

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software