OLYMPIA — When Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed Senate Bill 6617 on March 1, he had some time to spare. But not much.
The governor had until 11:59 p.m. to decide whether to sign the controversial bill, veto it entirely, partially veto it, or let it pass without his signature. He faced the prospect that legislators might override his veto with a supermajority vote, a reasonable threat considering that the bill had been passed with an overwhelming majority on 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 with supermajority margins and 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 about 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 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.
An agreement came together in a turbulent and last-minute fashion. On Feb. 28, 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 David Zeeck, the publisher of The Tacoma News Tribune and The Olympian 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 up their attempt to seek a stay on the enforcement of the court ruling and wouldn’t field a ballot initiative.
On 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 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 March 1 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 — the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the Legislature — will join the defendants in seeking a stay on enforcement of the ruling while the matter proceeds in an appeal now before the state Supreme Court. Furthermore, the news media plaintiffs agreed not to field a ballot initiative to overturn the Legislature’s action, and 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 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.