Walsh bill would make more legislative records available

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, is one of the sponsors of a bill that would expand the type of information and records from the Legislature that would be available to the public through the state Open Public Records Act.

House Bill 2115 is one of two pieces of legislation, the other is HB 2105, that would push the Legislature closer to conforming with the open government legislation other public agencies are subject to. Both came soon after Senate Bill 5784, which dealt with legislative public records requests, failed to progress in the legislature. The senate bill would have made state representatives subject to the public records act, but also exempted them from a variety of specific public records requests, and drew criticism in a recent hearing.

Both of the new bills were introduced on Feb. 21 and neither got a formal hearing before the Feb. 22, committee cutoff date, but Walsh said he’s hopeful his bill could be considered necessary for the state budget, which could keep it alive for further consideration before the session ends.

Walsh said both bills are based primarily on a previous bill by former Rep. Paul Graves.

Walsh said it’s a challenge to find the right level of restrictions on public disclosure so that legislators can’t be forced to give over more personal information, which he said should still be protected while holding legislators to a “reasonably high” level of disclosure.

“The hard part is working out details of what adjustments legislators rightly need,” said Walsh. “I’ve always been sympathetic to the argument that we have correspondence, emails and texts (from constituents), wherein people offer intimate personal details of their lives. I get them almost every day because they have a problem they need help fixing.”

The bill by Walsh also has some changes he thinks improve on the Graves bill it’s based on, with Walsh saying his bill fixes problems in the Graves bill and that the other similar bill leaves untouched. One difference is Walsh’s bill distinguishes who handles the public records requests in the Legislature, and makes it clear that retrospective public records requests are allowed dating back to Jan. 19, 2018, when a Thurston County judge ruled that legislators are subject to the Public Records Act.

HB 2105, the similar bill sponsored by Democratic representatives, would just require legislators to allow public records requests going forward from the bill’s passage. However, Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way, amended the bill this year to require past ethics and sexual harassment investigations against legislators to be made public.

Pellicciotti took some issue with Walsh’s bill, which would exempt legislators from disclosing some things. The bill says the “speech or debate” clause in the state Constitution shields some records from disclosure. In Walsh’s bill, it says legislators don’t have to disclose “preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, and inter-branch communication in which opinions are expressed or policies are formulated or recommended,” as well as personal identification information.

Of Walsh’s bill, Pellicciotti said in an email, “I believe the Constitution should shield the people from government, not shield the government from the people.”