by Bethany Torstenson
Digital Manager and Writer, John Locke Foundation
The North Carolina General Assembly recently passed a new state budget that contains a seemingly innocuous provision that would functionally exempt lawmakers from public records law.
“the custodian of any General Assembly record shall determine, in the custodian’s discretion, whether a record is a public record and whether to turn over to the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, or retain, destroy, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of, such records.”
It’s important to note that “custodian” in this context means the lawmaker. Essentially, each legislator has the ability, with this provision, to determine whether their work-related communications are public or not.
What happened to public records being “property of the people”?
Following the news of this provision, Carolina Journal’s editor-in-chief, Donna King, published a op-ed breaking down the specific provision language while also highlighting the impact it will have on public transparency in the future, stating:
“North Carolina’s public records laws already allow lawmakers to claim their records are exempt, but now the records could be destroyed, denying citizens the right to public scrutiny of their government. … The budget amendment applies to state lawmakers, but public records are critical to governmental transparency at all levels.”
In a brief last week, Locke’s Dr. Andy Jackson proposed revisions to the provision’s language to “fix” what he calls “an unwelcome addition to the budget.”
He also provided a specific example of how access to public records has helped his work here at Locke:
“Access to public records has aided my work at the John Locke Foundation … My research on 1,700 ‘ghost voters’ (people who cast ballots despite being removed from voter rolls) who voted in the 2020 election was greatly enhanced by the information I obtained through two public records requests to the North Carolina State Board of Elections. … Those kinds of investigations become more difficult, if not impossible, if government officials can deny access to records.”
You can read the specifics of Dr. Jackson’s proposed language revisions to the provision here.
While this provision is now considered law, the opportunity to make technical corrections to amend the language remains an option. We at Locke hope legislators not only consider that option but act on it. Legislators are public servants elected by “we the people” to serve their community.
Hiding public documents from the taxpayers to whom they’re accountable and, in some cases, even destroying these records incentivizes lawmakers not to prioritize government transparency at a most basic level.
North Carolinians need and deserve more transparency, not less.