North Carolina’s intense brand of partisan politics often seems closer to contact sport than civil discourse, but some issues still boil down to simple matters of right and wrong.
Hiding legislative records from the stakeholders whose state taxes underwrite their creation is wrong. Republican budget writers broke the public’s trust when they squirreled a secrecy clause into a 625-page spending bill, and that isn’t an exclusively Democratic declaration. Conservative leaders have roundly condemned the last-minute move that effectively makes General Assembly members exempt from the N.C. Public Records Act.
State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican gubernatorial candidate who has earnestly fought for health care price transparency, upbraided lawmakers for their disappointing decision to move the public’s business out of the sunlight and into the shadows.
“While I may not be an expert on public records laws, I agree with what former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin continues saying. Doing right is rarely wrong,” Folwell said in a Wednesday statement to The Wilson Times. “As state treasurer, keeper of the public purse and recipient of the N.C. Open Government Coalition’s Sunshine Award, I feel strongly that restricting public access to important public information reduces confidence in all levels of government, which is already at historical lows. It matters because in so many ways, our society is at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to unite or divide. Answering the whys and hows that legislation is written is more important than ever.”
State law already designated each legislator as custodian, or official caretaker, of the records his or her office creates and receives. Revisions to a statute on the General Assembly records archiving process gives every senator and representative the latitude to determine which documents are public records subject to disclosure and which ones can be withheld as confidential and consigned to the paper shredder.
“Allowing individual lawmakers to determine what records are public and what material can be destroyed without ever seeing the sunshine of public view creates a system without standards or accountability,” Folwell continued. “It prevents the public from learning who and what influenced decision-making on their behalf.”
As this editorial page recently noted, the General Assembly sets the tone for state and local government agencies. If lawmakers believe it’s OK to keep secrets themselves, it strains credulity to believe that mayors, city councilors, police chiefs and all manner of elected and appointed officials wouldn’t try to do likewise.
“There shouldn’t be a double standard of justice where the legislature doesn’t live by laws that other state and local governments do concerning the right to have access to the records of public agencies,” Folwell said. “I don’t need a law to tell me what’s right or wrong, and that’s true yesterday, today and tomorrow. We will continue to have a culture of conservatism, common sense, courtesy and open communications as keepers of the public purse.”
The treasurer’s assessment is spot-on. As a former N.C. House speaker pro tempore, Folwell knows as well as anyone what kind of correspondence crosses a state lawmaker’s desk. The conservative stalwart joins current and former Democratic officials in opposition to the budget bill blunder.
“As an elected leader in the legislature, I value accuracy, fairness, transparency and good government,” N.C. Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue wrote in an Oct. 3 letter to Phil Lucey, executive director of the North Carolina Press Association, and Dawn Vaughan, president of the Capitol Press Corps. “It is unfortunate that some lawmakers have opted to attack the foundation of good government: public access.”
Blue additionally offered a “pledge of transparency” — though his GOP colleagues granted him the right to send records requesters away empty-handed, Blue committed his office to living by the lofty principles expressed in the Public Records Act, which declares documents generated through government service are “the property of the people.”
“The Senate Democratic Leader’s office will continue to comply with the ‘spirit’ of public records laws and provide transparency to the press and public, regardless of the new laws enacted on October 2, 2023,” he wrote. “As has been the case during my tenure, the Senate Democratic Caucus has upheld this principle of good governance, and I encourage all legislators to continue to do so.”
We agree with Senator Blue — and with Treasurer Folwell. Transparency isn’t a partisan issue.
The problem with the state budget’s vast expansion of legislative privilege is evident on both sides of the aisle. With Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate, the responsibility for correcting this grievous error rests squarely on the GOP’s shoulders.