The apparent inability of the Senate to improve the stateís Freedom of Information Act begs the question: Why canít the very people who represent the public ensure better access to public information?
For years, people have encountered so-called public servants who donít want them to know what theyíre up to, what theyíre spending or why. So in 1978, the S.C. Legislature enacted the Freedom of Information Act to set things straight.
The law has been amended several times as flaws have become apparent. Sometimes thatís because public employees have looked for loopholes and found them.
For example, they might provide public documents when asked, but will charge an arm and a leg for them to be copied. Or they drag their heels on requests for information. Or they provide partial information, and fail to mention that there is more that they are withholding.
A bill approved by the House of Representatives and now before the Senate would close some of those loopholes and better protect the publicís right to know.
It would limit copy charges to market value. And it would require timely delivery of information.
Those are reasonable safeguards, but the chances are getting slimmer and slimmer that the Senate will act on it in time for it to become law. Some senators say theyíre worried about the potential expense. But citizens pay a high cost when they are kept in the dark.
Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, has jammed the process in a political tug-of-war. He has said he doesnít object to the bill, but is holding it up in an effort to prevent debate on a bill giving tax breaks to parents who send their children to private school or educate them at home.
Each bill should be considered on its own merits. The reasons to approve the FOIA bill are compelling to the public interest.
The FOIA bill has survived several challenges already. One controversial amendment would require legislators to release emails and correspondence as public documents.
Itís a good idea, but shouldnít be allowed to threaten passage of the other FOIA improvements, which have broader legislative support. If itís going to endanger passage of the larger reform, the amendment should be removed and considered on its own next year.
The legislative session has been extended, but time is short.
There is no good reason for the Legislature to pass up the chance to make straightforward improvements to a bill that will protect the publicís right to know.
Failing to do so would exemplify the kind of legislative irresponsibility that makes citizens lose confidence in their elected officials.
Sen. Hutto and his colleagues ought to know better.
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