No excuses: Strengthen FOIA

Legislation that would require South Carolina lawmakers to be more transparent is meeting with opposition.

Most, if not all, South Carolina legislators say they are all about being transparent: The people have a right to know what their elected officials are doing.

But legislation that would require those lawmakers to be more transparent is meeting with opposition.

Objections to the bill seem to be little more than excuses for saying “no” to a proposal that would give the public rightful access to legislators’ papers. Lawmakers are now exempt from that provision of the Freedom of Information Act.

The latest obstacle is an estimate from the S.C. Department of Archives and History that it could incur added costs of almost $1 million to store the legislative records.

Some legislators question the accuracy of that estimate. Others seem prepared to vote against the bill because of the supposed $1 million tab.

But if South Carolina’s legislators were as interested in transparency as they claim to be, they would be looking for ways to enable toughening the law, not stopping at the first roadblock.

The initial bill, submitted by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, would strengthen FOI provisions, but it did not address making lawmakers’ papers and correspondence public.

It was enjoying wide support — until it was amended to prevent legislators from keeping their papers secret. Now lawmakers aren’t so keen about the bill.

Of course, legislators should be required to make public the papers that other public officials are. Citizens have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent and what issues are being considered.

But tacking the papers provision onto the existing bill could be a poison pill. Members of the General Assembly who endorse the original legislation could well vote against the amended bill because they like keeping their records secret.

Rep. Taylor and Rep. Weston Newton, R-Beaufort, have introduced a compromise bill that would retain a limited legislative exemption to the state’s “sunshine” law. Legislators would not have to disclose legislation that has not been introduced and would not have to make email from constituents public.

If legislators indeed recognize and honor their constituents’ right to know the public business, they should consider every option and support the bill that will put state government where it belongs — in the sunshine.