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North Carolina Democrats push for transparency in challenge to public records law

North Carolina Democrats are pushing to — once again — require legislators to be subject to public record requests, while Republicans say legislation is unnecessary.

RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) — North Carolina Democrats are pushing for public record transparency after last year’s budget exempted lawmakers from public records laws and granted them the ability to sell and destroy records.  

Democrats introduced a constitutional amendment in both the Senate and House which would require all public officials and agencies to “be open to public inspection, examination, and duplication” and prevent laws from being created to limit access to records, barring a compelling public interest. 

In order to make it to the ballot in November, the amendment would have to pass through the House and the Senate, where Republicans hold a majority. The bill will go to the House Rules Committee next. Its sponsors said they don’t expect it to be heard this session. 

The budget, which was more than 600 pages and more than three months late, passed into law in October 2023 and recategorized legislative documents as confidential, rather than public records. It also prevented legislative records drafted by lawmakers and their staff from becoming public without the consent of the legislator. Lawmakers were granted the ability to determine if a document was considered public record or not, and given the discretion to “retain, destroy, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of” records.

The budget also prevents legislators from being required to publicly reveal any documents or information requests they made while in office, even after they’ve left.

“I would suggest that that rollback on public access to public records is the most significant rollback of public records by any state government in recent memory,” said Senator Graig Meyer, one of the primary sponsors of the constitutional amendment. 

The records restriction resulted in the General Assembly receiving the Society of Professional Journalists’ Black Hole Award, an annual award given “for acts of outright contempt of the public’s right to know.” 

In 2011, when Republicans won the majority for the first time since 1870, Republican senators introduced a similar bill. Dubbed the “Sunshine amendment,” the bill never even received a hearing. Three Republican senators who sponsored that bill are still in office: Senators Brent Jackson, Buck Newton and Ralph Hise. 

Meyer said he asked them to co-sponsor with him, but they declined.

Jackson, Newton and Hise did not reply to requests for comment on the bill. Neither did Senate leader Phil Berger. 

Tim Moore, speaker of the House, said that he didn’t expect the bill to be heard this session, but that the new public record laws are working “just fine.”

“I would say lawmakers can and should be (trusted to be custodian of their records),” Moore said Wednesday. “Lawmakers are elected by the voters and are given a responsibility to do a lot of things, to pass the budget, to...pass laws.”

Ann Webb, policy director of Common Cause NC, a non-partisan organization advocating for accountable government, said that the amendment is “common-sense legislation” to ensure transparency and hold public officials accountable. 

“It is time to put this question to the people,” she said. “Public records are the property of the people, and the people of North Carolina have the right of access of information concerning the conduct of the people’s business.”

When the budget was passed with the public records provision, the North Carolina Press Association and local platforms urged the General Assembly to rescind the law, as did the conservative-leaning John Locke Foundation. 

The decrease in transparency has followed major legislation being negotiated behind closed doors, including the 2023 budget and election maps drafted in April 2023, a process that occurred with limited public input, in a noticeable shift from how redistricting was conducted in 2019 and 2021. 

Meyer said that access to public records isn’t historically a partisan issue, but is a battle between the public and the public officials in charge. He said he believes most of his Republican colleagues understand the problems with the law, and agree that they overplayed their hand in allowing records to be sold or destroyed. 

“We stand at a crucial moment for sustaining some of the fundamental tenets of democracy,” he said. “And if the public can’t see what the public pays us to do, then we are failing the fundamental test the public expects from us.”

Follow @SKHaulenbeek
Categories / Government, Law, Politics, Regional

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