COLUMBIA — State senators dramatically weakened a bill Wednesday that would have made it easier for members of the media and the public to obtain government documents.
A last-minute amendment by Sen. Margie Bright-Matthews, D-Walterboro, altered a bill to change the state's Freedom of Information Act which has been pushed by the S.C. Press Association.
The original bill, which received unanimous support in the House, would have set up an Office of Freedom of Information Act Review and allowed news organizations or members of the public to challenge disputes over government records in the state's Administrative Law Court.
Bright-Matthews' amendment, however, strips out that change, and would require legal challenges over FOIA disputes to be handled in circuit courts, where they are already litigated.
Bill Rogers, with the S.C. Press Association, said that portion of the bill was meant to make it cheaper and easier for people to challenge public agencies when they are denied access to public records.
Bright-Matthews has long opposed to moving FOIA disputes to the Administrative Law Court because it would cost local governments in her district too much money, she said.
Instead, her amendment requires FOIA cases to be heard in circuit courts within 10 days of a case being filed, and the case must be settled within six months.
The bill still includes other aspects that the House passed, including a deadline for when public agencies have to turn over records that were requested.
Under both the House and Senate legislation, a local or state government would have roughly 30 days to turn over documents and other records once they are deemed public.
The altered bill also includes language that makes it easier for members of the public to obtain dash cam video footage from police vehicles.
Like the House version, the Senate's bill would require police agencies to challenge a FOIA request for dash cam footage in circuit court within 15 days of it being requested, if they want to keep it private.
The revised legislation passed the Senate 40-0 and will now head to a joint committee, where the differences between the House and Senate bills will have to be worked out.