COLUMBIA — A proposed change to a state House bill strengthening South Carolina’s freedom of information law would allow state lawmakers to continue to keep some communication secret.
Under current law, members of the General Assembly have an exemption that allows them to keep their email and other internal correspondence closed to public review.
An S.C. Freedom of Information Act reform proposal by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, would leave that exemption intact, while reducing the time public bodies have to respond to citizens’ open records requests, limiting fees, setting stronger penalties for non-compliance, and creating a new appeal process for records disputes for citizens and public bodies through the state’s Administrative Law Court.
Taylor said he is not opposed to doing away with the legislative exemption but has fretted that including it in his proposal would give some lawmakers, particularly senators, heartburn and lead them to kill the bill.
A similar bill Taylor introduced last year passed the House but died in the Senate.
This year’s version of the proposal has cleared a House subcommittee.
With the bill reaching the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Bluffton GOP Rep. Weston Newton proposed replacing the existing legislative exemption with narrower exceptions.
Those exceptions would allow legislators to shield correspondence pertaining to the creation of legislation before it has been introduced before a committee or the General Assembly. The proposed amendment also would exempt from public disclosure written or electronic correspondence sent to a public official by a constituent, and the public official’s response to that correspondence.
“I think that this legislation goes a long way toward promoting transparency and accountability, reducing cynicism and mistrust of government, and yet recognizes challenges and obstacles associated with just getting rid of the legislative exemption altogether,” Newton said.
Taylor and S.C. Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers said the proposed amendment is reasonable.
Judiciary Committee members adjourned debate until next week before voting on the amendment to give lawmakers more time to review the new proposal.