Opinion

This public records bill is a snow job

Washington Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, left, and Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, right, visit with the two other leaders of the “four corners” caucuses: House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomishand House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, earlier this year at a media forum in Olympia. Schoesler and Nelson are behind a late-developing legislative public records bill.
Washington Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, left, and Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, right, visit with the two other leaders of the “four corners” caucuses: House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomishand House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, earlier this year at a media forum in Olympia. Schoesler and Nelson are behind a late-developing legislative public records bill. AP

Under normal circumstances, we cheer bipartisanship and applaud Democratic and Republican leaders for coming together on legislation. But the cynical game that’s afoot at the state Capitol this week is being played under abnormal circumstances and should be met with jeers, not cheers.

Washington Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, a Democrat, and Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Republican, have quietly conspired in an eleventh-hour ambush on the public’s inalienable right to know how their elected representatives operate.

In the last few weeks of a short session, with none of the usual trappings of due process (it’s too late for full public hearings), they’re trying to ram through a bill that would essentially create an imperial Legislature.

Never mind Washington’s landmark Public Records Act, which was approved by voters in 1972 and includes these unambiguous words: “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 bill Nelson and Schoesler introduced Wednesday would all but carve out a separate PRA for the legislative branch. It would let lawmakers release communications, calendar items and other records they’re comfortable releasing; they could withhold others while hiding behind a fig leaf of constituent privacy — all the more suspect because it’s based on their own fluid definition of a constituent.

Sure, the bill would require legislators to disclose contacts with registered lobbyists. But that leaves them absurdly wide latitude to keep secrets with corporate honchos, union chiefs and other “constituents” who write big campaign checks and shape policy behind the scenes.

Senate Bill 6617, euphemistically described by backers as a “parallel framework” to the PRA, was given its only public airing at a one-hour work session Thursday, on a snowy day when Olympia schools didn’t open and local activities were limited.

What a perfect backdrop for legislation that amounts to a snow job.

This proposal also would let lawmakers bottle up all preliminary drafts, notes and other work-related material that form the backbone of laws they’ve already passed and decisions they’ve already made — a luxury that city councils and other local legislative bodies don’t have.

Why should legislators be given cover for their past actions on sexual harassment, official misconduct and other controversial matters?

What’s more, the bill’s authors have the audacity to invoke an “emergency clause,” despite the fact state government has managed to function for decades without these disclosure constraints. If they want to change the law, bring a bill up next session when it can be fairly and thoughtfully debated in hearings and on the floor.

Perhaps worst of all, it would subvert government separation of powers enshrined in our state constitution. Legislators would have the absolute right to deny release of a record without oversight from any court; instead, all appeals would go through House and Senate committees. (Insert fox-henhouse analogy here.)

It’s no mystery why legislative leaders resorted to this closed-loop scheme. After years of refusing to disclose emails, disciplinary records and other behind-the-scenes communications, they were stuck in a losing court battle against a coalition of news organizations led by the Associated Press and including McClatchy.

Just last month, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled legislators were violating the PRA. He added this prophetic kicker: “If the Legislature disagrees, it can say something different by amending the law.”

Unfortunately, legislative leaders have opted to amend our venerable public records law in the most opaque and precipitous way imaginable —without fair warning, robust public input or a clear understanding of the bill by rank-and-file lawmakers.

On Thursday, it appeared the bill was being fast-tracked through the House and Senate and could land on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk this weekend.

The governor, who has refused to claim executive privilege on his own office communications, is a model of government transparency. He should affirm that reputation by vetoing this terrible legislation.

Meantime, we hope our legislators decide they can’t participate in an ambush in good conscience.

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