A provision in North Carolina’s new budget that exempts lawmakers from state public records laws has drawn widespread criticism from open government advocates and Pitt County Democrats, but the county’s House Republican called the secrecy provision “small” compared to other action passed.
The language included in the $30 billion appropriations act itself was developed behind closed doors and inserted into the 600-page document for approval when the budget passed Sept. 22. It states that “the custodian of any General Assembly record shall determine, in the custodian’s discretion, whether a record is a public record.” Lawmakers can choose whether to turn records over to the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources or to “retain, destroy, sell, loan or otherwise dispose of, such records.”
On Oct. 3, a coalition of groups opposed to secrecy in government penned a public letter to the General Assembly calling on lawmakers to reconsider and rescind the provision. The letter was signed by Donna King, editor-in-chief of the Carolina Journal, Donald Bryson, CEO of the John Locke Foundation, Phil Lucey, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association, and Lockwood Phillips, publisher of the Carteret County News-Times.
The letter stated that the provision “allows for the destruction of records that could otherwise be essential for transparency and accountability” while allowing lawmakers to exempt themselves from public records laws, “denying citizens their right to scrutinize their government’s actions.”
The letter acknowledged that information like personnel records are valid exemptions from public records requests, but said the provision goes past those “legitimate concerns” and threatens the transparency public records laws were written to provide.
The budget also repealed a law that required lawmakers to make public the drafting and communication related to redistricting seats for the General Assembly and Congress. Before, that information could be requested once new district maps were approved.
Republican Tim Reeder, who represents N.C. House District 9, said that he would be willing to review the section referring to public records but that the appropriation bill’s good outweighs any drawbacks.
“Overall, the budget we passed was excellent for North Carolina,” Reeder said. “It provides significant pay raises for all state employees including teachers, investments for workforce development, funding for health care including mental health. It positions ECU Health at the center of improving rural health through the NC Care initiative. The budget continues tax cuts to allow folks to keep their own money. It allows all students to be eligible for school tuition assistance.
“I was able to successfully advocate for many priorities in Pitt County and ECU. The overwhelming positive aspects of the budget far outweigh the small provision related to making legislators the custodians of their communications. I am willing to review this provision to ensure that legislators are working in a transparent manner.”
Reeder’s peers on the other side of the aisle disagree, with Sen. Kandie Smith of Pitt and Edgecombe counties questioning what the Republican-majority legislature is trying to obscure.
“Listen, the moment you feel like you have to make legislation to hide what you’re doing when you work for the public, we know that there’s an issue,” Smith said. “There is absolutely no transparency. The public records request that (news agencies) are no longer allowed to ask for, not only is it backward, but there are also provisions in the budget that say we can sell information. I just think this is on the path to ruin when you do things such as this because our job is to represent the citizens, our job is to represent the people, the constituents, the people of North Carolina. If we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, which is the people’s business, what are we trying to hide?”
Smith also expressed concern about a consolidation of power in the state’s legislature away from the courts and governor’s office. Smith said the moves eliminate effective checks and balances.
It grants the legislature power to confirm the president of the state’s community college system, for instance. A person elected by the system’s board can serve as interim president until a joint resolution is reached by the House and the Senate.
The State Bar Council’s authority to make four appointments to the Judicial Standards Commission was removed, with those appointments, a district court and superior court judge apiece to the House and Senate, now at the behest of the General Assembly.
“If you’ve seen everything else, a lot of the checks and balances have been taken away,” said Smith, former Greenville mayor and councilwoman. “We are making a lot of power grabs, taking a lot of power from the governor. We’ve taken a lot of appointments from the governor. Then you see the appointments and we’re putting a lot of appointments into our hands in the legislature and then deadlocking issues. ...
“That concerns me because I don’t know where we’re going. ... We have a democracy and we need to protect that democracy. I’m very afraid of what’s next.”
Gloristine Brown, the Democrat representing House District 8, expressed a commitment to transparency in spite of the new law.
“The provision that empowers lawmakers to choose what is and is not public record in their office is not surprising; it is exactly what we have come to expect from our current leadership in the General Assembly,” Brown said. “I can promise you that I will not hide from the truth. I am committed to continuing to earn the trust of my constituents and this legislation will not prevent me from doing so.”