COLUMBIA — Gov. Nikki Haley wants lawmakers to lift the exemption in state law that allows them to shield their emails and other internal communication from public view.
But how the governor's office has pursued that goal during the ongoing legislative session has put Haley's administration at odds with the S.C. Press Association, which represents and serves the state's daily and weekly newspapers.
The association's director thinks the Haley administration's approach could kill a bill that would be of great benefit to residents and the media, while the governor's office maintains that an amendment to the state's Freedom of Information Act is just “window dressing” without including language to lift the lawmakers' exemption.
The dispute centers on an amendment that was added to a bill by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, before it easily passed the House Judiciary Committee in late February.
The bill would bar public bodies from charging more than fair-market rates for copies made in response to open-records requests; force bodies to make certain records available for immediate inspection; and provide that records would have to be turned over no later than 30 days following a request.
Taylor said in a recent interview that the morning before the Judiciary Committee was set to vote on his bill, he received a call from one of Haley's deputy chiefs of staff, Ted Pitts.
Taylor said Pitts told him that the governor's office wanted an addition to the bill to lift the longstanding legislative exemption, which Taylor interpreted as a threat to veto his bill.
As the committee debated the bill later that day, GOP Rep. Rick Quinn of Lexington added an amendment to pull lawmakers' FOIA shield before the measure passed.
Quinn, who occupies Pitts' former House seat, said he didn't coordinate with Haley's office and wasn't aware of its position until after the vote.
And a spokesman for the governor said Pitts didn't threaten a veto of the original bill.
“We don't threaten vetoes, we work with legislators to prevent them from being necessary,” Rob Godfrey said in a statement. “What Ted told Mr. Taylor is that if the Legislature wants to amend FOIA, they should include themselves in it — otherwise, it's just window dressing.”
Full House debate on the bill has been pushed back several times since the amendment was introduced, but worries from the Press Association and others about the potential consequences of the addition have filled the vacuum in the meantime.
S.C. Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers has termed the amendment a “poison pill sought by the Haley administration.”
“I think it interjected politics into a pretty straightforward bill that would benefit the public,” he said. “I think it has certainly slowed (the bill) up, and we may run out of time.”
Rogers said the Press Association does not oppose in principle an effort to make lawmakers' emails and communications public.
“I just didn't want to see it complicate a simple bill,” he said.
Godfrey said it's surprising the Press Association doesn't support a bill that would end an exemption that keeps an entire branch of government from being opened to the public.
Taylor, a former newsman, said he still supports the bill, even though stripping the exemption wasn't his original intent.
But he said the amendment will make it significantly more difficult to pass the legislation.
“I think that part of the bill gives some people around here heartburn and indigestion,” Taylor said, referencing lawmakers who aren't anxious to open up their correspondence.
House members will have two weeks when they return from a two-week furlough that began Monday to pass the bill to meet the May 1 legislative crossover deadline, or the bill is unlikely to pass this year.
Even if the measure passes the House, it would likely face a more difficult test in the Senate, where rules make it easier for an individual lawmaker to put the brakes on legislation.
When she was campaigning for governor two years ago, Haley declined for several months to waive the legislative exemption amid requests to view her emails from her time as a state representative from Lexington.
Haley's campaign eventually released some emails.
Asked about the governor's current stance on the exemption in light of her delay in releasing her legislative emails, Godfrey said the premise of the question is “totally wrong.”
“We took time out of the campaign to go over and above what the law requires and opened up tens of thousands of pages of email for review — and if then candidate Haley had been asked if she supported a change in the law, she would have said yes,” he said.
Reach Stephen Largen at 864-641-8172. Follow him on Twitter at @stephenlargen.