DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — Keeping tabs on what North Carolina lawmakers are up to just got harder. The state legislature has given itself the power to make its own decisions about what records will be made public.
When most people think of the state budget, they think of just that — How will our tax dollars be spent? But inside this year’s more than 600-page budget is a section that makes legislators custodians of all the records they create while in office. It gives them full discretion of what they make public which can limit transparency.
“We the people of North Carolina, pay for everything that the legislature produces. We pay the salaries, we pay their operating budget, and yet they’ve chosen to completely exempt themselves from the statutes that govern the rest of the government,” Sarah Ludington, Duke law professor and director of the university’s First Amendment Clinic.
CBS 17 asked House Speaker Tim Moore who is responsible for putting the open records change in the budget. Moore said he didn’t know.
“I don’t remember where it came from. I think the way it’s written I’m told is structured in a way that’s fair that make sense but I’m not the expert on it,” said Moore, “So, I’m giving you more opinion than true analysis of it.”
Moore went on to say that he believes some requests have just one objective.
“They’re designed to add to costs and to harass, and it ends up costing the taxpayer’s money. So how do you balance that with ensuring that the public has full transparency of what’s allowed. And I’m very proud of our policy of what we turn over,” said Moore.
Duke Law’s First Amendment Clinic helps people navigate public records requests.
“I don’t see this as a balanced solution whatsoever. In my mind, the legislature certainly is entitled to a certain amount of confidentiality when it’s drafting and deliberating, but at some point, all of that should become public records so that we know what our elected representatives are doing on our behalf,” said Ludington.
Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger was also asked about the change in the law.
“There are a number of things that we do that the individual members should have the ability to make the determination to make as to what they are, what they determine to be public record or something they determine to release. I think it’s largely the practice that’s been in place for a long time,” Berger said.
Ludington said she believes it is incredibly difficult for your average citizen without a lawyer at their back to get an answer to a public records request as is.
“And honestly, from what I see, people are seeking these records from the government because the government is not producing them in a transparent way and people need to know, they want to know how their government is operating,” she added.
“What I always say to local government when they complain about requests for public records is if you were to produce these documents and these public records willingly and easily, there would be less of a demand for them. Because they’d be available and the public’s desire to know what their government is doing would be satisfied.” said Ludington. “It’s really troubling to me. I think there’s really very little to be gained by secrecy in governance. Especially in a democracy where we have to know what our elected representatives are doing or we can’t intelligently select them.”