ALTHOUGH the Legislature has made important progress toward doing its business in public, the House and Senate and their committees and caucuses still can meet behind closed doors whenever they see fit, and ethics complaints against legislators remain hidden from public view. And while we can now find out how legislators voted on bills that have the force of law, don’t expect to see “Memoranda, correspondence, and working papers in the possession of individual members of the General Assembly or their immediate staffs.”
That legislative secrecy provision is one of the broadest exemptions in the Freedom of Information Act, effectively shielding one of the three branches of government from important public disclosure requirements.
But that could be changing. The House Judiciary Committee voted 19-2 last week to strip away the legislative exemption, and require legislators to follow the same open-records law as everybody else in state and local government, from the governor down to the most obscure clerk laboring in the bowels of the bureaucracy.
This exemption was itself obscure until then-Rep. Nikki Haley, campaigning for governor on a platform of bringing more transparency to government — and particularly the Legislature — refused to provide the public access to her House email account; she eventually released printouts of some emails, with names, addresses and sensitive personal information of many of those who wrote her redacted. That display of double-standards didn’t affect the race, but it did shed enough light on this particular bit of legislative secrecy to prompt the first serious attempt we can recall to bring legislative correspondence into the sunshine.
The committee tacked the anti-secrecy provision onto a bill that would end the growing practice of public agencies charging exorbitant fees for complying with public-records requests, and require some documents to be made available immediately and most others within 30 days of a request. Media lobbyists point to local governments that have charged $5 per page for copies of police records and thousands of dollars to “research” records, and to the months it can take to finally get documents requested under the law. It’s a long-overdue reform of the Freedom of Information Act that would prevent what can only be called willful attempts to keep public information out of the public’s hands.
Despite the overwhelming vote to remove the legislative exemption to the law, some committee members complained that they should be able to shield constituents who contact them in confidence, often with highly personal information. And given how reluctant the Legislature has been even to speak of such changes in the past, we can’t entirely dismiss concerns by media lobbyists that the amendment is a poison pill designed to undermine the underlying bill. If they can come up with a reasonable way to lift the legislative exemption while maintaining some sort of privacy protection for constituents, that would be worth considering.
But we can’t think of a way to craft a limited exemption that wouldn’t be easily abused, and subjecting the rest of the government to the state’s open-records law doesn’t seem to have stifled public complaints. As for the politics of all this, we suspect that legislators would actually have a more difficult time explaining a vote against the bill now that it applies to them and not just everybody else. If there’s anything voters dislike, it’s the special laws that legislators write for themselves. And rightly so.