By Taylor McAvoy

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 on 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 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 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.

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 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.

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 HB 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, which is 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.

More in Northwest

King County Councilman Reagan Dunn sent a letter to the FBI asking for them to help investigate Allan Thomas (pictured), who is under investigation for stealing more than $400,000 of public funds and skirting election laws in an Enumclaw drainage district. Screenshot from King 5 report
King County Council requests report on special districts in wake of fraud allegations

Small, local special districts will face more scrutiny following Enumclaw drainage district case.

Gov. Jay Inslee shakes hands with Dinah Griffey after signing Senate Bill 5649 on April 19. The law revises the statute of limitations for sex crimes. Photo by Emma Epperly, WNPA Olympia News Bureau
Hits and misses from Legislature’s 2019 session

New laws target vaccines, sex crimes and daylight savings; losers include sex ed and dwarf tossing bills.

Gov. Jay Inslee speaks to protesting nurses on April 24 at the State Capitol Building in Olympia. Inslee indicated he would sign the bill for meal and rest breaks into law if it passes both chambers. Photo by Emma Epperly, WNPA Olympia News Bureau
Lawmakers approve ‘nursing bill’ for mandatory meal and rest breaks

Nurses show up in Olympia to support bill, protest Sen. Walsh’s remarks.

Colton Harris-Moore, known as the “Barefoot Bandit,” as seen on a GoFundMe page where he sought to raise $125,000 for flight training. (GoFundMe)
‘Barefoot Bandit’ asks judge to shorten his supervised release

Colton Harris-Moore says travel restrictions are holding back a lucrative public-speaking career.

USPS district manager Darrell Stoke, Janie Hendrix and Congressman Adam Smith (D-WA) unveil the plaque honorarily naming the Renton Highlands Post Office as the “James Marshall ‘Jimi’ Hendrix Post Office” on Friday, April 19. Photo by Haley Ausbun
Highlands Post Office honors Jimi Hendrix

Postal Service connected Hendrix to family during his Army service.

Walkers rest amid the trees at Island Center Forest on Vashon Island, which is part of King County. Many trees around Western Washington are struggling, including Western hemlock on Vashon, likely from drought stress. Photo by Susie Fitzhugh
King County forests are facing new challenges

Hot, dry summers are stressing native tree species in Western Washington.

Washington State Capitol Building. Photo by Emma Epperly/WNPA Olympia News Bureau
Legislation targets rape kit backlog

WA has about 10,000 untested kits; new law would reduce testing time to 45 days

Federal Way resident competes for top 20 spot on ‘American Idol’

Todd Beamer senior Myra Tran previously won “The X-Factor Vietnam” in 2016.

Photo by Kayse Angel
What’s next for the I-405 master plan?

New express toll lanes from Renton to Bellevue are coming soon.

The 2015 Wolverine Fire in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest near Lake Chelan. Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Natural Resources/Kari Greer
Western Washington faces elevated wildfire risk in 2019

Humans cause majority of fires in state

Courtesy of kingcounty.gov
King County approves bargaining agreement with 60 unions

Employees will receive wage increases and $500 bonus.

File photo
Law enforcement oversight office seeks subpoena power

Organization has been unable to investigate King County Sheriff’s Office.