COLUMBIA — A bill strengthening the state’s freedom of information law is headed to the full state House after clearing a key panel Tuesday afternoon.
But like last year, the proposal was amended to bar state lawmakers from keeping their communication secret. Under current state law, legislators are allowed to keep secret their emails, correspondence and working papers.
Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, introduced the amendment doing away with the legislative exemption. It was added to a broader open records bill by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken.
Quinn called the exemption “hypocrisy at its core,” saying legislators should have to follow the same guidelines as other public officials.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the amendment 12-10 before advancing Taylor’s bill.
Taylor’s measure would reduce the time public bodies have to respond to citizens’ open records requests, limit fees, set stronger penalties for non-compliance, and create a new appeal process for records disputes for citizens and public bodies through the state’s Administrative Law Court.
The bill passed the House last year but died in the Senate.
Quinn’s amendment also passed last year, leading the S.C. Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers to call the change to the bill a “poison pill” that would lead to the legislation’s demise.
Rogers and Taylor said at the time that they feared Quinn’s amendment would lead lawmakers to kill the bill. The senator who effectively spiked the bill, Columbia Democrat John Scott, didn’t cite the proposed elimination of the legislative exemption in explaining why he placed a legislative block on last year’s bill. He said the bill needed more study.
Rogers said he hopes the climate has changed this year, noting an ethics reform commission created by Gov. Nikki Haley last month also recommended the removal of the legislative exemption. “I think the public’s ready for this,” he said.