State Treasurer Dale Folwell said Tuesday state lawmakers should undo a provision in the state budget that exempts them from the public records law to provide the same transparency and accountability over their actions that exists across the rest of state government.
“By allowing individual lawmakers to determine what records are public and what material can be destroyed without ever seeing the sunshine of public view creates a system without standards or accountability,” Folwell said in prepared remarks. “It prevents the public from learning who and what influenced decision-making on their behalf.”
More sunshine is needed, said Folwell, a former Republican state House member and speaker pro tem, given “historic lows” in the public’s confidence in government.
Folwell, who is running for governor, is the first prominent Republican elected official to speak against the provision that gives legislators the right to decide what records of theirs to make public. That puts him at odds with the leaders of the Republican-led legislature — Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore — who defended the provision without identifying who wanted it.
Folwell said state lawmakers could easily amend the budget before the legislative session ends to remove the provision. Lawmakers typically pass “technical corrections” bills before they finish that address concerns or errors in previously passed legislation.
“As members of the General Assembly actually look at how this jumped up on the table, and for what problem is it actually trying to solve, there’s always an opportunity, at really the snap of a finger, for them to undo this,” Folwell said at his monthly news conference Tuesday. “But that obviously will be their decision.”
Berger said when the provision first appeared late last month that lawmakers needed it to settle a dispute with the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources regarding records retention. But a spokesman for the department said officials there were unaware of a dispute. The department later released emails to The News & Observer showing the last written interaction with legislative officials on records retention was on May 9, 2022.
Roughly 17 months later, the exemption provision appeared in state budget legislation that Berger and Moore quickly moved through their chambers. Republicans, who have a super majority in both chambers, supported the budget bill, as did a small number of Democratic House members.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, criticized the provision exempting legislators from public records laws but chose to let the $30 billion budget become law last week without his signature. It includes Medicaid expansion, a long sought goal among Democrats.
Open government groups, news organizations and diverse political advocacy organizations such as the ACLU of North Carolina and the John Locke Foundation have also said they oppose the provision.
North Carolina’s public records law provides an essential check on government power. Records obtained by news organizations and other groups have exposed corruption, waste and fraud in state and local government, including the legislature.
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