It is time to end the argument, once and for all, whether the Washington Legislature is exempt from state public records law.
Legislators claim they are exempt from the law requiring disclosure of records. Earlier this year — with a few exemptions — lawyers acting on behalf of legislators refused sweeping requests by news reporters for emails, office calendars showing whom legislators met with, and other public records.
In response, The Associated Press and other news groups in our state filed suit in Thurston County Superior Court. The lawsuit challenges the claim that a 1995 change in disclosure law shields legislative records.
Obviously we disagree with that. Lawmakers’ claim is at odds with the public interest — not to mention the will of Washington voters. Way back in 1972, our state’s voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 276 in a bid to put sunlight on government operations.
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The intent of I-276 was pretty clear: Open the books of government for public inspection. This applied to state and local government agencies, campaigns and candidates for political office. There was no specific exemption for state lawmakers and their records.
As The AP reported Tuesday, news groups asked for records this year from all 147 Washington legislators. The requests included calendars showing exactly with whom legislators met during the regular and special sessions that ran from January to June. This coalition of news groups also requested copies of text messages that were part of legislative duties.
It was not a stretch for reporters to want to know who had key lawmakers’ ear on critical issues. Of special interest was the communications by legislative leaders on the historic public school funding issue that was the centerpiece of the 2017 sessions. The public ought to know what lawmakers were saying to interest groups in emails.
Every taxpayer should care. Legislators ultimately provided billions of dollars in new state funding for K-12 schools in response to the landmark Supreme Court ruling in a case known as McCleary. That 2012 ruling said the state was not meeting its obligation under the Washington Constitution to fully fund basic education.
Lawyers for the House and Senate have cited the 1995 amendments to records law to support their claim the records act does not apply to legislators.
What is interesting is that House and Senate lawyers have been careful in past years not to push too hard on this claim. In fact they did comply with a number of limited records requests, while insisting at the same time they were not legally required to provide the records.
Often the House chief clerk or secretary of the Senate left it to an individual lawmaker to decide which email records to release. That approach wasn’t good enough.
This shortcoming became clearer this year after news organizations asked to learn who legislators were talking to in connection with K-12 public school funding.
The wheels of justice turn slowly. Stay tuned.