Behind the scene of public records bill veto

How negotiations between the governor’s office, lawmakers and media organizations stopped the legislation

By Josh Kelety, WNPA Olympia News Bureau

When Governor Jay Inslee vetoed Senate Bill 6617 late on March 1, he had some time to spare – but not much.

The governor had until 11:59 p.m. to decide whether or not to sign the controversial bill, veto it entirely, partially veto it or let it pass without his signature. He faced the prospect that legislators could override his veto with a supermajority vote, a reasonable threat considering that the bill had been passed with an overwhelming majority on February 23. District 42 legislators Doug Ericksen (R-Ferndale), Luanne Van Werven (R-Lynden) and Vincent Buys (R-Lynden) were among the many legislators who voted in favor of the bill.

It wasn’t until 9 p.m. on March 1 that Inslee’s office sent out a press release stating that the governor had vetoed the legislation, which would have immediately exempted the state legislature from public disclosure law. According to the press release, the decision was made after the governor had secured an agreement between lawmakers and media organizations for a compromise.

“The public’s right to government information is one we hold dearly in Washington,” Inslee said in a written statement. “Transparency is a cornerstone of a democratic government.”

The bill, which would have also retroactively exempted lawmakers from the state Public Records Act, was rushed through the legislature in under 48 hours with no public hearings. It passed both the state house and senate with supermajority margins and no floor debate.

The reaction was swift and severe. On February 27, 13 daily newspapers across Washington published editorials calling on Inslee to veto the legislation.

By March 1, the governor’s office had received nearly 12,000 emails, 5,600 phone calls and more than 100 letters from constituents regarding the bill. In his statement, Inslee called the public reaction “unprecedented.”

The response was the latest in an ongoing battle between the newspaper publishers and the legislature that led to the creation of the controversial legislation. Sponsored by senate majority leader Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) and senate minority leader, Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) the bill came on the heels of a January 19 ruling from Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese that lawmakers are subject to the state’s Public Records Act.

The decree stemmed from an ongoing lawsuit against the legislature by the Associated Press, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and other media organizations, who sued last year for lawmakers’ internal communications and records pertaining to alleged sexual harassment incidents.

In the hours leading up to the late-night veto, Inslee’s chief of staff David Postman and his executive director of legislative affairs Drew Shirk engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations with legislators and some of those same newspaper publishers. An agreement came together in a turbulent and last-minute fashion.

On February 28, three regional newspaper publishers participated in a brief conference call with Inslee to voice their concerns and ask him to veto the bill; during the call, Inslee said he wasn’t sure what to do, said David Zeeck, publisher of The Tacoma News Tribune and The Olympian, who was also on the phone call.

Over the next 24 hours, Inslee’s staff went back and forth between both sides. The publishers wanted the bill killed and a public stakeholder discussion on public disclosure in the legislature. Lawmakers wanted guarantees that the media organizations would back up their attempt to seek a stay on the enforcement of the court ruling and wouldn’t field a ballot initiative.

On March 1, Inslee’s staff requested letters from the publishers and lawmakers clarifying their positions and their intended actions if he vetoed the legislation.

Michele Earl-Hubbard, the attorney representing the media organizations in the lawsuit, drafted the plaintiff’s letter, which was sent to the Inslee’s office at around 5 p.m. on March 1. “It was a promise to the governor to give him information so that he could broker a deal,” Earl-Hubbard said.

Senator Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) who helped corral positions from the Senate Democratic caucus along with deputy senate majority leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) said that the media’s letter sealed the deal for many of his Democratic colleagues. “The items that were covered in Michele Earl-Hubbard’s letter were the things that we were looking for,” Pedersen said.

House and Senate Democrats also authored letters late Thursday afternoon endorsing the veto. “We have heard loud and clear from our constituents that they are angry and frustrated with the process by which we passed ESB 6617,” both letters read. “We think that the only way to make this right is for you to veto the bill and for us to start again.”

As the hours ticked down, a deal emerged. In exchange for a veto from the governor and no override vote from the legislature, the media organizations – the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the legislature – will join the defendants in seeking a stay on enforcement of the ruling while the matter proceeds in an appeal now before the state Supreme Court. Furthermore, the news media plaintiffs agreed not to field a ballot initiative to overturn the legislature’s action, and would help lawmakers craft public records legislation in 2019.

Still unaddressed is another letter authored by the entire House Republican caucus, which endorsed a veto decision, but laid the blame for the controversial bill with House and Senate Democrats – despite the fact that most House Republicans voted for it.

“As members of the minority caucus we don’t get to choose which bills run or when they run … Senate Bill 6617 was the only solution allowed by the Democrats,” the letter states. “All 48 of our members wished they could have voted for a better bill.”

The House GOP letter demanded that speaker of the House, Representative Frank Chopp (D-Seattle) hold a hearing on  House Bill 2255, a bill filed late last year that would require that legislators be subject to public disclosure laws. The letter stated that Republicans want their bill heard in the House State Government, Elections, and Information Technology Committee on March 7, which is the day before this year’s session ends.

Representative Paul Graves (R-Fall City) who voted against Senate Bill 6617 and is the primary sponsor of House Bill 2255, said that he hasn’t received confirmation that it will get a hearing.

Earl-Hubbard noted that none of the lawmakers’ letters feature signatures from the House or Senate Democratic and Republican leadership, who are explicitly party to the ongoing lawsuit. “We’ve heard not a lot from the four leaders. Period,” she said.

Senate Bill 6617’s sponsors, senators Nelson and Schoesler, declined to comment for this story.

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