SC House to consider proposal to make lawmakers’ records public

02/19/2013 12:00 AM

02/18/2013 11:08 PM

The S.C. House will consider ending part of the exemption that lawmakers have from the state’s sunshine laws.

The state’s Freedom of Information Act, which outlines the information that public officials and government bodies must make available to the public, currently exempts members of the General Assembly and their staff from disclosing memos, correspondence and working papers.

State Rep. Weston Newton, R-Beaufort, wants to narrow that exemption to give the public access to that paperwork once related legislation or amendments have been introduced.

A similar proposal died last year in the state Senate.

Trying to find out why that bill failed, Newton said he heard concerns from lawmakers who wanted to keep private communications and working papers involving not-yet-introduced legislation.

Newton also wants to allow all elected officials to shield from disclosure any letters and emails from constituents, regardless of content, an exemption only legislators have under current law. Constituents could request legislation or an action and that communication could be withheld, for example. But any response from the legislator to that constituent would be subject to release.

Having served on Beaufort County Council for 14 years, Newton said most people do not realize their letters to elected officials could be considered public records.

The House Judiciary Committee meets today to discuss other changes to the state’s open-records laws that are aimed at curbing long waits and excessive fees for public records. Newton plans on offering his proposal as an amendment to that legislation, sponsored by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken.

Taylor’s bill would require public bodies to publicize the rates that they charge for searching and copying records for Freedom of Information Act requests, and to fulfill those requests within 30 to 45 days, depending on how old the records sought are. The bill also would create an office to address disputes between those seeking public records and public bodies.

Last year, Taylor sponsored a similar bill that included eliminating the open-records exemption for lawmakers. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate, a failure that Taylor attributes to his proposed complete elimination of the open-records exemption for lawmakers.

Eliminating the legislative exemption was a “poison pill” that was added late in the process last year, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, which includes The State. “I don’t think it is anymore.”

This year, with so much focus on ethics reforms, the public’s mood and legislators’ attitudes have changed, he said.

Addressing the legislative exemption also would bring Taylor’s bill in line with the recommendations of Gov. Nikki Haley’s ethics reform panel, he said.

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