Measure to strengthen state FOIA on the ropes
COLUMBIA — A bill that would sharpen the teeth of the state’s freedom of information law is likely dead unless a section that opens lawmakers’ emails and other correspondence to inspection is stripped out, S.C. senators say.
What would the bill do?
Bar public bodies from charging more than fair-market rates for copies made in response to open-records requests.
Ban copy charges for records that are stored in an electronic format.
Force bodies to make certain records available for immediate public inspection during work hours.
Require public bodies to turn over records no later than 30 days following a request.
A controversial amendment would lift the exemption state lawmakers currently have in state law that allows them to keep their emails and other internal correspondence closed.
Source: House Bill 3235
On the line for South Carolinians are a reduction in costs for open-records requests, more readily available records and the end to more than month-long waits for public information.
At issue is an amendment that was added to the bill before it passed the House.
The addition would lift the long-standing exemption for legislators’ internal communications written into the state Freedom of Information Act.
The idea of spiking their exemption is giving some senators major concerns.
“From what I’m picking up, it would kill the bill with so little time left in the session,” Charleston GOP Sen. Chip Campsen said.
The bill always faced a tougher road in the Senate, where rules make it easier for an individual lawmaker to block legislation.
Campsen opposes the amendment. He said lawmakers would have to add more staff to handle requests for internal documents, and constituents would no longer feel comfortable presenting sensitive concerns to their elected officials due to worries that the issues could become public.
“You shut that off, you shut off the ability to help constituents,” Campsen said.
A subcommittee headed by Campsen was set to hear the bill last week. But Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, agreed to fast-track the measure to his committee for a hearing this week to give it a last shot at passage in the final weeks of the session, which ends June 7.
Like Campsen, Martin said he will not support the bill if the amendment is not removed.
The S.C. Press Association has said the amendment injected politics into the bill and made it less likely that the original, more straightforward bill would clear the Legislature.
In a Monday letter to Martin, association Executive Director Bill Rogers said the Judiciary Committee should revert to the original legislation.
“The bill contains so many good things, we feel like it would be wrong to kill it over the legislative exemption,” Rogers said. He said the issue of the legislative exemption should be examined on its own in a future session.
The bill’s sponsor, Aiken GOP Rep. Bill Taylor, said his measure could become a casualty of election-year politics because a lawmaker won’t want to risk being branded as anti-transparency for stripping the amendment.
He said it would be more politically expedient for senators to kill the bill outright.
“That’s government, unfortunately,” Taylor said. “Do any of them have the courage to remove that section understanding that they’ll be criticized?”
The amendment was added to the bill by a House committee the same day Gov. Nikki Haley’s office told Taylor that it wanted the section added to his bill.
Taylor interpreted that request as a threat that Haley would veto his legislation if it didn’t also open up lawmakers’ records.
A spokesman for Haley has denied a veto threat was made and Lexington GOP Rep. Rick Quinn, who introduced the amendment, has denied any coordination with Haley’s office.
Haley invoked the same exemption she now wants to abolish when she was asked to release emails as a House member running for governor.
Haley’s campaign allowed reporters to see 10,000 pages of her legislative emails three months after they were requested.
Most of the messages had nothing to do with legislative business.
The governor cited the legislative exemption in initially refusing to let reporters view the emails.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172 and follow him on Twitter @stephenlargen.