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N.C. legislature is criticized for exempting itself from public records law

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

North Carolina's legislature is now exempt from the public records law that governs other branches of government. As WUNC's Colin Campbell reports, the change came alongside a major expansion of the legislature's ability to seize documents from state agencies and private contracts.

COLIN CAMPBELL, BYLINE: North Carolina law allows the public to obtain a variety of documents from state government and its elected officials, their emails and their meeting calendars. That transparency law still applies to the governor, local mayors and agency leaders across the state. But a provision in the newly enacted budget bill now cuts off that access for anyone seeking records from state legislators and their staff. It says the lawmakers themselves can decide what to make public and which documents to delete or toss in the shredder. Brooks Fuller leads the N.C. Open Government Coalition, which opposes the change.

BROOKS FULLER: They have every incentive to leave you in the dark if there's a record of something unflattering or that might not be politically advantageous to them. And my belief is that that's probably what most legislators are going to do.

CAMPBELL: Legislative leaders wouldn't say who asked for the provision to be added to the final draft of the budget. But House Speaker Tim Moore defended the change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM MOORE: I think we received a public records request to every member of the General Assembly for every bit of correspondence for the last three years. Now imagine how much that would cost to produce that. They're designed to add to cost and harass and ends up costing the taxpayers money. So how do you balance that with ensuring that the public has full transparency?

CAMPBELL: The move has few defenders outside the legislative building. The conservative John Locke Foundation, the state Press Association and many Democrats have called for the language to be repealed. The change also removes transparency from the redistricting process underway this month. In the past, documents used in drawing new congressional and legislative maps were released after the new districts were approved. That won't happen this year, prompting criticism from Democratic State Representative Tim Longest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIM LONGEST: It shields precisely those records on matters where folks from both sides of the aisle have said we should be more transparent, drawing district lines.

CAMPBELL: As the legislature shuts off access to its internal workings, it's giving its own staff far more power to get documents and information from other branches of government, as well as private companies that do business with the state. A few years ago, legislative leaders eliminated a nonpartisan agency that reviewed state programs and recommended improvements. That agency was replaced by investigators working directly for the leaders of a legislative panel known as the Commission on Government Operations. It's recently probed hurricane recovery programs and high school sports oversight, holding sometimes testy hearings with officials from Democratic Governor Roy Cooper's administration. A budget provision will let partisan staffers for the commission seize documents and enter offices of state agencies and government contractors. Democratic State Senator Graig Meyer says the access is so broad that the partisan investigators could enter private homes of political opponents without a warrant if they use their home as the headquarters for a business. He compares it to a spy agency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRAIG MEYER: The admin of this type of secret policing feels more like opening the door of authoritarianism. It should scare us all.

CAMPBELL: Republicans dismissed Meyer's scenarios as hyperbole. They say the new authority for the agency is similar to what the state auditor uses to investigate government spending. But Fuller of the Open Government Coalition says it's a concerning shift when paired with the repeal of public records laws.

FULLER: This means that folks who already enjoy a lot of privilege and a lot of power as elected representatives in state government now have the ability to make public information laws, such as they exist, work for them. And meanwhile, they've stripped that power away from average folks.

CAMPBELL: Reporters and others filed a few more requests to get lawmakers' emails before the change took effect. It could be folks' last chance for now.

For NPR News, I'm Colin Campbell in Raleigh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Colin Campbell