COLUMBIA — State representatives Wednesday voted to send a bill reforming the state’s freedom of information law back to committee, with two members of the House’s Republican leadership saying it is not the House’s intent to spike the bill despite the blow.
In the S.C. Legislature, recommitting a bill to committee sometimes results in the proposal dying on the legislative vine.
But the bill’s sponsor, Aiken GOP Rep. Bill Taylor, said Tuesday’s vote is not the death knell for his legislation.
“There’s no way this bill’s gonna get killed,” he said. “It’s gonna get fixed. There’s too much energy behind this bill.”
The House Judiciary Committee, which already cleared the open records proposal once during the ongoing legislative session, will again be in charge of the bill’s fate.
Taylor’s measure would reduce the time public bodies have to respond to residents’ open records requests, limit fees and set stronger penalties for non-compliance, among other changes. The bill passed the House last year but died in the Senate.
Taylor and the House Republican leaders said Wednesday the source of concerns with the bill is an amendment that was added before the bill cleared the Judiciary Committee last month.
The amendment by Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, does away with the exemption in state law that allows state lawmakers to keep their correspondence and working papers secret.
Quinn has called the exemption “hypocrisy at its core,” saying legislators should have to follow the same guidelines as other public officials.
Before Wednesday’s vote, Gov. Nikki Haley called on House members to support removal of the legislative exemption. She noted in a statement that an ethics reform commission she created had recommended the reform in a report released earlier this year. While campaigning for governor, Haley declined to waive the legislative exemption amid requests to view her emails from her time as a Lexington state representative. Her campaign eventually released some emails. Her spokesman has said that then-candidate Haley would have supported doing away with the legislative exemption had she been asked during the campaign.
The spokesman, Rob Godfrey, said in a statement Wednesday that the governor was disappointed by the move to recommit the bill to the House panel. “There’s no reason for it to go back into committee — the people want this bill, and they deserve this bill,” Godfrey wrote.
Quinn said Wednesday that he was surprised by the 72-34 vote to send the bill to committee. A different consensus had seemed to emerge at a House Republican Caucus luncheon before the vote, he said.
Quinn said there seemed to be agreement that the best course of action would be to keep the bill in the House, with the idea being to hold off on floor debate until an amendment could be developed addressing concerns with the bill as written.
Those concerns center on the potential cost of preserving lawmakers’ correspondence and the privacy of constituents who write to legislators about sensitive issues, according to members of House GOP leadership.
“Constituents who write legislators about issues with the Department of Social Services or the Department of Revenue have told us they don’t want their e-mail inquiries on the front page of our newspapers,” said a joint statement by House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister and Assistant Majority Leader Gary Simrill.
“The House does not currently have the full-time staff or technology available to effectively comply with a new Freedom of Information Act while preserving the privacy of our constituents.”
Bannister and Simrill said they are not seeking to kill the bill, but asking the Judiciary Committee to address the concerns and move the bill back to the House floor as soon as possible.
Movement on the bill will have to wait. The House is on a two-week furlough starting next week.
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