You may recall that around this time last year, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled against the legislature in determining that they are subject to the Public Records Act (PRA) after several news organizations requested certain work-related documents from the legislators. Both sides appealed and the case is pending before the state supreme court.
In response to the court decision, legislators rushed to pass a bill that created a new set of public records rules that applied just to them. The bill was introduced and passed in less than 48 hours. It met with such outrage from the media and the public that Governor Inslee vetoed the bill.
During the fall, a task force made up of representatives of the media, local government, open government advocates, and legislators met to develop recommendations for future application of the PRA to the legislative branch. There was basic agreement that the legislature should be more transparent, but the agreement largely ended there.
At the end of January, new legislation was finally introduced. This new bill, SB 5784, from Senator Jamie Pedersen, adds the term “legislative branch” to the PRA and then outlines what exemptions to the PRA would apply to the legislative branch:
- Drafts of bills and amendments, including bills not introduced and amendments not offered;
- Offers and counteroffers or other records of negotiations between legislators, caucuses, or chambers;
- Any record of how a legislator intends to vote on an item before a committee or chamber;
- Internal caucus communications;
- Notes taken by staff or legislators for use by the staff or legislator;
- Preliminary investigative records;
- Personally identifying information included in communications with individuals, except communications with lobbyists and grassroots groups.
Media groups don’t think much of the legislation, with counsel for the newspapers calling it “unsatisfactory” and wondering what would be left for the public to see.
The bill is tentatively scheduled for hearing on February 13, with Senator Pedersen acknowledging that it is a work in progress and that changes could be made as it moves through the legislative process – this time with hearings and opportunity for public input.