COLUMBIA — South Carolina residents hoping for reform of the state’s freedom of information law will have to wait until at least next year.
A bill by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, includes a series of changes to the open-records policy. It would force public bodies, such as state agencies and local school boards, to respond more quickly to requests for public information, and restrict what those bodies can charge for that information.
Taylor introduced a similar bill last year that passed the House but died in the Senate in the final days of the session.
This year, the first of a two-year session, the bill met a more unceremonious fate: It failed to meet a legislative deadline that essentially kills the proposal for the session.
The legislation cleared the House Judiciary Committee and reached the House floor, but was sent back to the panel for more study after some lawmakers expressed concerns.
Representatives of local governments and school boards also argued that the bill is unreasonable.
“I think it’s unfortunate the people of South Carolina have to wait another year for any meaningful reform,” said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association.
The group strongly supports open-records reform.
Remaining sticking points on the bill, Taylor and others said, are the potential cost of preserving state lawmakers’ records and the removal of the exemption that currently allows legislators to keep those records closed.
Under current state law, legislators are allowed to keep secret their emails, correspondence and working papers.
Taylor’s bill did not address the exemption.
Like last year, the proposal was amended to bar state lawmakers from keeping their communications secret.
And just like last year, Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, introduced the change.
Quinn said if the Legislature is to pass freedom of information reform, it must pass a bill that puts the Legislature under the same rules as other public bodies.
Some legislators have expressed concerns that the privacy of constituents who send them emails and other correspondence about sensitive issues would be compromised if the exemption is removed.
An ethics study panel created by Gov. Nikki Haley recommended the elimination of the exemption, but the broad ethics reform bill that passed the House this session did not address the issue.
Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia, said the reason Taylor’s bill didn’t pass again this year is because it was not a priority of the House’s Republican leadership.
A spokesman for GOP House Speaker Bobby Harrell of Charleston did not respond to a request for comment.
Because this is the first year of a two-year session, legislators can continue to work on Taylor’s bill this session in the hopes that it will pass next year.