The South Carolina House on Wednesday gave its approval to a bill that requires government bodies to respond more quickly to open records requests from the public.
It’s the third attempt in five years by the House to revamp the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The measure passed in a bipartisan 90-16 vote. It now heads to the Senate, where previous efforts have died, after another procedural vote on Thursday.
“The overall goal is to try to make it easier for our citizens to get access to documents in a quicker fashion with fewer obstacles and less expenses,” the bill’s sponsor State Rep. Weston Newton, R-Bluffton said before the vote.
Newton said there dozens of examples around the state where government entities (including the Jasper County School Board in his home district) ignored current FOIA law without repercussions. The Lowcountry Republican chaired a study panel that crafted the bill after several hearings last fall. He said there have been cases where citizens were charged copying fees of $10,000 or higher.
The proposed law does not include language that would end a current exemption legislators have from open records requests. Instead that will be taken up in a separate bill. Supporters agreed not to push for the language to be included this year after Senate objections killed previous versions of FOIA reform in 2012 and 2014.
The bill that passed Wednesday would reduce the window for state and local government entities to respond to public requests. Under the bill, agencies would now have 10 business days to answer a request (down from 15) and 30 days to provide the documents (currently no time limit in place). More time would be allowed if the records are more than two years old.
The proposed law also attempts to limit what an agency could charge for searching, copying, and printing documents. Current law requires any fees not exceed actual cost, but watchdog groups complained some uncooperative local governments were charging five or six figures in response to some requests. The bill will require agencies post a fee schedule that does not exceed the “prorated hourly salary of the lowest-paid employee” with training to do the record search. Any copying costs must be the same as commercial copying rates.
“The current FOIA bill that we have, which we’ve had for 25 years, was a really good law,” former television reporter and anchor State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, said. “But it doesn’t have any teeth.”
To address that, the new bill sets up a new court division to handle complaints against those not honoring FOIA requests. Newton said violations are currently heard in criminal court, where backlogs and expensive fees halt most complaints. The new Office of Freedom of Information Act Review would review complaints and send them to the S.C. Administrative Law Court for a judge to treat the case as a civil matter.
Agencies found in violation of the law would have to pay actual damages on top of a $500 fine and attorneys’ fees.
However, some legislators said they had concerns about the estimated $130,000 price tag for setting up the new court division. State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairs the House committee responsible for crafting law enforcement budgets. He said supporters never told him about the cost until the bill was close to passing.
“I have a concern about the fiscal impact to that particular bench while I am at the same time trying to fund patrol cars on the road… and having trouble doing that,” Pitts said during Wednesday’s debate.