Midlands Lawmakers Kill Public Access to Information Bill

By Corey Hutchins
Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Back in March, South Carolina earned an F when graded on the public’s access to information in a national report by the Center for Public Integrity.

It’s likely to stay that way — at least for now.

The regular legislative session ended June 7, and a reform bill that would have strengthened the state’s Freedom of Information laws died at the hands of two Midlands lawmakers in opposing parties.

The bill in question, sponsored by Aiken County Republican Rep. Bill Taylor, a former reporter, would have:

• Shortened the deadline for responding to an FOI request from 15 business days to 15 calendar days;

• Stopped state and local entities from being able to charge fees for time staffers spend complying with FOI requests; and

• Allowed state and local entities to charge only prevailing commercial rates for copying records.

The way public bodies respond to FOI requests varies throughout the state.

The S.C. Department of Insurance, for instance, would charge less than $70 for at least five full boxes of email correspondence rolled in on a cart, as it once did for Free Times. Conversely, the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce might scatter relevant material throughout boxes full of irrelevant material in an un-air-conditioned warehouse while blasting Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas songs through loudspeakers and annoyingly videotaping the reporter trying to find what he’d asked for, as it did to the Myrtle Beach Sun News.

Or, a public official just might not fulfill the request at all, as in the case of a Sumter County coroner being sued by the South Carolina Press Association.

Gov. Nikki Haley had her own FOI trouble when her office left out a crucial email from her in its response to a records request to the Charleston Post & Courier and refused to answer why, on camera, during several seconds of awkward silence as she waited for an elevator door to open. (The email surfaced in a nearly identical records request to a separate agency.)

During testimony on the bill this year, a Swansea woman told of her town government wanting to charge her $10,000 for documents; and a Lexington County school board member said she’s had to put in FOI requests to her own district just because some officials there aren’t happy with her.

“Those stories are legendary; they go on and on,” Taylor, who wrote the FOI bill, has said.

It seems they will continue.

The FOI reform bill’s death this year came in two acts.

In Act One, Lexington Republican Rep. Rick Quinn added a controversial amendment that would have made it so lawmakers couldn’t hide behind a legislative exemption, such as the one Haley used to shield reporters from viewing her legislative emails in the wake of allegations that she’d had an adulterous affair. Curiously, Haley had called for such an amendment. Quinn said he did not talk to Haley or her staff about it, adding, “I don’t see how any member of the General Assembly could continue to give themselves an exemption that nobody else in state government has.”

South Carolina Press Association director Bill Rogers likened the amendment to a poison pill that he worried would destroy the bill’s chances of passing in the Senate, saying it should be a separate piece of legislation.

Once the bill hit the Senate, Rogers’ fears appeared justified.

Because of the way the Senate works, one senator can effectively kill a bill, and
Columbia Democratic Sen. John Scott did just that by putting a legislative block on it, saying he wanted to hear more debate.

“Until we can have some real debate on that bill, and I know what the subcommittee recommends, I’m not going to pass a bill like that out of here,” Scott said, according to The Associated Press.

Rogers, the Press Association director, said in an email to members that the association’s plan is to regroup next year.

“This is the second year of a two-year session, so the bill will have to be refiled and start the process over,” he said.

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