A year later and Rep. Bill Taylor is back at it again.
On the final day to pre-file bills for next month’s legislative session, Taylor re-introduced the Freedom of Information Act bill. But this time around there are some differences.
“This is about opening up government to the citizens who pay for it; they have a right to know what their government is doing,” Taylor said.
The FOIA is a law that gives people the right to access information from federal, state and local government, often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government.
But in South Carolina, that information hasn’t come easy, or cheaply. Numerous organizations, including the Center for Public Integrity, have labeled the Palmetto State as one of the worst when it comes to public information.
For Taylor, a former news reporter, it is an issue that needs to be addressed.
“This legislation monumentally strengthens South Carolina’s open-government law by not allowing government officials to hit FOIA requestors with large, punitive research and copying fees which have the practical effect of stymieing transparency,” Taylor said.
There are a number of key provisions in Taylor’s bill to amend, as well as a couple of changes from last year’s bill.
Those provisions state: cut the length of time from 15 calendar days to seven days to initially notify a person if their FOIA request can be met; cut compliance time from 30 business days to 30 calendar days; prohibit state and local entities from charging fees for staff time spent complying with FOIA requests; allow state and local government entities to charge only prevailing commercial rates for copying records; disallow charging for documents available in digital format; increase fines for FOIA violations from $100 to $500 (first violation), $200 to $1,000 (second violation) and $300 to $1,500 (third violation); and allow for magistrates, who could hold individuals in government in civil contempt for failing to comply with the FOIA requests, to provide immediate legal relief and enforcement
Taylor said he added the last provision regarding the magistrate because, “we believe that’s a very swift response.”
“A law that is not enforceable is not a law at all,” Taylor said. “There is additional teeth in the bill so if citizens seeking information from government feel they are getting stonewalled they can seek immediate relief in Magistrate’s Court rather than waiting many months or more to have their grievances heard in Circuit Court.
“Magistrates would be able to order the government unit to comply and would be able to fine those responsible for not complying with the FOIA to be in civil contempt.”
Last year, Taylor’s FOIA bill passed through the State House with a 101-1 vote, but stalled in the Senate in the final days of the legislative session.
One of the reason’s for the stall was an addition of an amendment that would have stripped lawmakers of an exemption allowing them to keep their government emails and other work documents secret. The exemption was added by Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington.
“Many were quoted at the time as saying it was a poison pill,” Taylor said. “It’s not that (the Senate) were trying to hide things, they were worried about constituent emails.”
Taylor has had the support of other legislators regarding the bill, as well as Bill Rogers, executive director of the South Carolina Press Association.
“A major weakness in our law is enforcement, and this change would make it much easier for a citizen to get a public record without the expense of hiring a lawyer,” Rogers said. “The bill will also prohibit the exorbitant fees some agencies charge for copies of public records.”
In a press release sent out by Taylor, University of South Carolina law professor and FOIA expert Jay Bender also showed his support.
“In response to this legislation, several government-funded special interest groups will complain about the cost of making public records public,” Bender said. “That argument is fraudulent. If the General Assembly has found, as it has, that it is vital in a democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner, it is incumbent on public bodies to anticipate requests for records and budget and staff for a timely response. That is the price of democracy.”
Rogers said in the release that grassroots support is needed to move this bill forward.
“Passage of this important legislation needs to be a grassroots effort,” he added. “Every citizen should demand open and transparent government.”