Legislators would no longer be exempt from South Carolina’s open records law under a bill that passed a House committee Tuesday.
Lawmakers are not legally required to answer a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, although most say they do.
“I think that folks are kind of tired of us setting ourselves apart from others,” State Rep. Rick Quinn (R-Lexington) said during the House Judiciary Committee meeting Tuesday.
The amendment passed 17-2. Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Columbia) said he agreed with the idea, but worried about constituent emails to his office that are intended to be confidential.
“The people that are reaching out to us would like protection from knowing that their email is going public all of a sudden and potentially going viral,” Rutherford told his fellow committee members.
However, Quinn said the Governor’s Office and other state agencies also deal with similar confidential issues– and state law already offers several protections.
The proposal was added as a late amendment to a bill that tries to lower the costs of FOIA requests. The committee unanimously approved a measure by Rep. Bill Taylor (R-Aiken) which does not allow government agencies to charge more than the fair market rate for copies when answering a FOIA request.
Taylor, a former journalist, said some agencies– especially small, local governments– purposely charge exorbitant fees to intimidate a person out of making the request.
“People have the right to know what their government is doing,” Taylor told South Carolina Radio Network, “They’re paying the taxes, it’s their government. It’s not our government. We work for the people.”
The bill does not allow agencies to charge a copying fee if the records are electronic. It also requires them to respond to a request within 30 days, unless the documents are more than two years old.
Under current law, agencies have 15 days to respond whether or not they will grant the request but otherwise there is no time limit on when those records will be made available. Most state agencies do have a time limit under office policies, however.
Rutherford said he did not think the legislation goes far enough. He said there is currently no punishment against entities that refuse to release those public records covered by FOIA. While there is currently a $100 fine against a person who “willfully” violates the law, Rutherford said it can be difficult to finger a single person in a governmental agency. He specifically mentioned his own struggles requests against law enforcement agencies.
Jay Bender, a University of South Carolina professor considered to be the state’s top FOIA expert, said the bill was a “great step in the right direction.” However, he worried about Tuesday’s amendment. While he supported it, he feared some senators would want to keep their exemptions, possibly killing the bill in the Senate.