Photo by Taylor McAvoy

Photo by Taylor McAvoy

Behind the Scenes of the Governor’s Veto of the Public Records Bill

How negotiations between Jay Inslee’s office, lawmakers, and media organizations led to the end of the controversial legislation.

When Governor Jay Inslee vetoed Senate Bill 6617 last Thursday night, he had some time to spare. But not much.

By midnight, he needed to decide whether to sign the controversial bill, veto it entirely, partially veto it, or let it pass without his signature. If he did decide to enact a veto, he would face a potential override from a Legislature that had already passed the bill with a veto-proof supermajority on Friday, Feb. 23.

It wasn’t until 9 p.m. that Inslee’s office sent out a press release stating that the governor had vetoed the legislation, which, if allowed to pass, 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 by wide margins and with no floor debate. The reaction was swift and severe. On Feb. 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 Jan. 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 evening 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.

The eventual agreement came together in a turbulent and last-minute fashion. It started on Wednesday, Feb. 28, when three regional newspaper publishers participated in a brief conference call with Inslee to voice their concerns and ask him to veto the bill. According to the publisher of The Tacoma News Tribune and The Olympian, David Zeeck, who was on that phone call, Inslee said at the time that he wasn’t sure what he would do.

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 an attempt to stay enforcement of the court ruling and wouldn’t field a ballot initiative.

On Thursday, March 1, Inslee’s staff requested letters from both the publishers and lawmakers clarifying their positions and their intended actions in the event that 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 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.

Sen. 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 will join legislators in seeking a stay on enforcement of the ruling while the matter proceeds in an appeal now before the state Supreme Court. Furthermore, the media plaintiffs agreed not to field a ballot initiative to overturn the Legislature’s action and said they 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 … SB 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, Rep. 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 Wednesday, March 7, the day before this year’s session ends.

Rep. Paul Graves (R–Fall City), who voted against SB 6617 and is the primary sponsor of HB 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.

SB 6617’s sponsors, Sens. Nelson and Schoesler, declined to comment for this story.

This report was produced by the Olympia bureau of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@seattleweekly.com.

More in News & Comment

Aaron Kunkler/staff photo
Alvin Sweet is a resident of Martin Court in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood. Martin Court is a former motel which was transformed into a supportive housing complex two decades ago. New funding from King County’s Health through Housing ordinance could expand this type of program across the county.
King County wants to buy motels for emergency, affordable housing

The concept has proven results in addressing homelessness.

Puget Sound renters will need housing assistance

Nonprofits, activists are expecting greater need as workers are laid off.

Courtesy photo
State demanded more drop boxes, and now it must pay for them

A King County judge says a law requiring more ballot boxes was an illegal unfunded mandate.

Stock photo
King County domestic violence homicides reach 16 so far this year

Previous two years had seven each as COVID-19 impacts incidents

King County 2020 unemployment numbers. Source: Washington State Employment Security Department
Boeing, coronavirus likely to impact King County economy

Unemployment remained high in September.

t
Smith, Basler running for District 9 Congress seat

Republican challenger takes on Democrat incumbent.

File photo
State Supreme Court strikes down $30 car-tab initiative

Justices unanimously agreed that voter-approved Initiative 976 is unconstitutional.

t
Kent girl, 12, dies trying to help her mother during seizure in car

Miranda Bhattacharyya ’always put the well-being of others before herself,’ family says

Hilary Franz (left) and Sue Kuehl Pederson
Wildfires, forest health are key issues in race to lead DNR

Republican Sue Kuehl Pederson is challenging incumbent Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.

Screenshot from the state Employment Security Department’s website at esd.wa.gov.
State still sifting through thousands of unemployment claims

The recent Lost Wages Assistance program pumped an extra $625 million to Washington’s unemployed.

power grid electricity power lines blackouts PG&E (Shutterstock)
State extends moratorium on some electric, gas shutoffs

Investor-owned electric and natural gas utilities in WA can’t disconnect customers through April.

Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee (left) and Republican challenger Loren Culp during Wednesday's debate. (TVW) 20201007
Inslee, Culp joust on COVID, climate, crime in feisty debate

In their only televised match-up, the two gubernatorial candidates differed on pretty much everything.