The North Carolina General Assembly passed the long-awaited 2023-25 state budget at the end of September. It included two provisions that may affect the balance between government transparency and secrecy.
Legislators wrote one provision that exempts them, for life, from the public records law that governs all other branches of state government and gives them the power to destroy, sell or otherwise dispose of those records.
North Carolina general statute defines public records as all materials made or received in connection with the transaction of public business by any agency within the North Carolina government or its subdivisions.
Phil Lucey, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association, said everyone should care about this change because officials are elected to work on behalf of their constituents.
“Now, lawmakers will have sole discretion as to whether or not the citizens of the state can see any of the work that's been done on their behalf,” he said.
This provision is just one of multiple items added to the budget at the last minute. Members of the General Assembly could not amend or remove provisions because they didn’t appear on any of the first five versions of the budget, only the final version that had to be voted on the next day.
This alone was enough to raise concerns for some legislators. N.C. Sen. Graig Meyer (D-Caswell, Orange, Person) said he is drawing attention to this unusual method of legislating because he is concerned the Republican party is "moving toward authoritarianism."
“There’s no reason to do it this way unless you think that you can’t do it through a straightforward means,” he said. “But I don't believe any of these provisions would be able to get through a full legislative process.”
The change to public record law comes just as North Carolina’s redistricting period begins, as legislators redraw congressional maps for 2024.