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Bid to Bolster State FOIA Law Falls Short

Open-government advocates expressed disappointment Thursday as a bill that would have strengthened South Carolina’s notoriously weak Freedom of Information Act law withered and died.

H. 3235 was held up Wednesday when Sen. John Scott, D-Richland, attached a minority report to the bill.

The procedural move placed the measure on the contested calendar, essentially moving it to the bottom of the debate list. Thursday was the final day of the regular session, which meant time ran out on the bill, which needed approval from the Senate on second and third readings.

“With the legislative power play over the ballot issue and the senatorial procedural machinations over the FOIA bill, every reforming step South Carolina has made in the past five years has been negated,” said Aiken resident Jane Page Thompson, referring to both H. 3235 and the Legislature’s recent attempt to skirt an S.C. Supreme Court ruling that resulted in dozens of candidates being tossed off primary ballots around the state.

Thompson, who organized a grassroots press conference earlier this year at the State House to push for passage of the measure, said she was particularly disappointed that a good portion of the final days of Senate’s regular session were involved with lionizing fellow solons and other individuals, rather than debating legislation.

“Why is the Senate spending its last week doing salutations to retiring lawmakers and employees instead of discussing issues that affect the lives of the people of this state?” she asked.

Thompson added that she doesn’t understand the Senate’s motivation for failing to embrace the open-government bill.

“If these people are truly elected to represent the people, they should have nothing to hide,” she said. “Yet they use procedural move after procedural move after procedural move to hinder debate. What are they trying to hide, the truth? The answer is unequivocally ‘yes.’”

Because this is the second year of a two-year session, the measure would have to be reintroduced during a future legislative session and the process started anew if supporters wanted to take another shot at it.

Bill sponsor Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, has previously said he planned to do so if the proposal didn’t pass this year. He was unavailable for comment Thursday.

Scott said he believed more discussion was needed on the proposal.

“I’ve not gone through the bill; there’s not enough time to go through the bill,” he told The Nerve Thursday.

Thompson, for one, wasn’t buying Scott’s explanation.

“If Sen. Scott can’t take 10 minutes to read a page-and-a-half bill, we’ve got problems,” she said.

Scott said the bill would have meant additional costs for state agencies to comply with the revised provisions of the FOIA law, which he claimed wasn’t made clear.

“Until we get a better understanding of what these costs will be, we don’t need to pass this bill,” he said.

H. 3235 would have added considerable heft to the state’s FOIA act. Among its provisions:

  • Shorten from 15 business days to 15 calendar days the deadline for responding to an FOIA request;
  • Prohibit state and local entities from charging fees for staff time spent complying with FOIA requests; and
  • Allow state and local entities to charge only prevailing commercial rates for copying records.

In addition, Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington and a former board chairman of the South Carolina Policy Council, the parent organization of The Nerve, earlier this year sponsored an amendment that would have eliminated the legislative correspondence exemption.

Quinn’s amendment would have made email and most other internal legislative correspondence a matter of public record.

Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association, believes the bill was ultimately scuttled by Quinn’s amendment.

"We think this bill would have passed without the poison pill of the Quinn amendment to add removal of the Legislative exemption,” he wrote in an email blast to members.

The Nerve is an associate member of the Press Association through its parent organization, the South Carolina Policy Council.

Taylor’s bill, introduced in January 2011, was passed by the House early last month. It was referred to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, but with time running out on the session last week, was taken up by the full Senate Judiciary Committee, which gave it a favorable report.

However, Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg placed a minority report on the measure Wednesday.  

Scott said he would like to have seen the details of the bill worked out at the subcommittee level.

“The floor of the Senate is no place to iron out issues,” he said. “This bill hasn’t had any work on it, and it’s not fair to pass on legislation like that. We had two years to work it out, and I’m not going to just pass something out just to pass something out.”

Scott said he was approached by at least two state agencies that expressed concerns with particulars of the bill, but declined to name them.

He did say that the agencies that will be impacted need to be heard from.

“I think our plan should be to regroup for next year,” Rogers said in his email blast. “We can try to work with Rep. Bill Taylor to fix the Legislative exemption and maybe do some other fine tuning.  We probably ought to try to get a companion bill introduced in the Senate and start early.”

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.

Accountability General Assembly Legislation Transparency Legislative Power Trip

FOIA Freedom of Information Act Rep. Bill Taylor