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Commentary: Perdue shoots down secrecy bill

RALEIGH ó It’s been said that a governor’s veto power is a lot like a shotgun.
It’s best kept hidden in a corner, behind a door, but occasionally alluded to by its owner so that any scoundrels know that they could be staring down the barrel should they decided to trespass.
Sometimes, though, scoundrels must actually be convinced that you’ll pull the trigger.
So, Gov. Beverly Perdue did. She hit the North Carolina General Assembly with a pretty fair blast.
Perdue’s first veto undid a bill that dealt with how the General Assembly operates and what people can learn about who’s doing the operating. The bill made changes to confidentiality requirements for the documents and requests that become part of drafting legislation.
A lot of those documents are already confidential, and the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Rick Glazier of Fayetteville, said that wouldn’t have changed much under the bill vetoed by Perdue.
Perdue and her staff disagreed, saying more documents would be made confidential. She was particularly concerned about information kept by the state agencies under her control.
“These are the people’s documents,” Perdue told reporters last week.
Glazier may be correct that current law already keeps secret bill drafting requests by legislators to legislative staff and most supporting documents that accompany those requests. But the vetoed legislation would clearly have done damage to people’s ability to know how their government operates and who stands behind public policy positions.
Any requests to legislators to draft bills ó whether it be from Joe Six Pack or Joe CEO ó would have also been tucked into the legislative secrecy file. And former legislative employees who violated the secrecy provisions could have faced misdemeanor criminal charges.
Neither Perdue, legislators nor press coverage focused on what might have proven the most damaging change. While current law gives legislative employees protections to prevent them from being compelled to disclose any nonpublic information gained in the course of their employment, the bill would have simply banned them from doing so.
A protection would have become a chilling burden and limitation. Under such a law, any staff member would be foolish to ever again chat with a reporter, speak to a community group, or answer the simplest question from the taxpayers who pay his or her salary.
Oh, and this almost law would have applied to both current and former legislative employees.
What’s next? A CIA-like oath of secrecy to work in the building? That ought to really encourage the best and brightest to work in the legislature.
Legislative leaders say they will skip trying to override Perdue’s veto despite unanimous votes for the bill in both chambers.
Perdue, meanwhile, gets a needed boost in positive publicity by taking on an easy target ó other politicians largely amorphous and unknown to the broader public. So what if they were her former colleagues?
Doing so, she lives up to a campaign promise to make government more transparent.
It was a smart, sure step.
– – –
Scott Mooneyham writes columns for Capitol Press Association.

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