North Carolina Democrats propose constitutional amendment for public records access

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 7, 2024

By Ahmed Jallow

NC Newsline

North Carolina Democratic lawmakers propose a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right of access to public records and meetings — a direct challenge to last year’s law that exempted lawmakers from the state’s public records law. 

The proposed amendment comes as a response to a provision lawmakers added to last year’s state budget that allows them to hide legislative records from public scrutiny, despite opposition from open government advocates and Democrats.   

House Bill 1075 and Senate Bill 911 would add a new section to North Carolina’s constitution specifying that any limitation of access to public records must be narrowly tailored to a protect compelling public interest. 

If passed into law, the amendment would be placed on the ballot in November’s general election. Republican leaders are unlikely to take up either measure.

Previously, North Carolina law allowed broad public access to government documents, including emails and officials’ calendars.  

“That rollback on public access to public records is the most significant rollback of public records by any state government in recent memory,” said Sen. Graig Meyer of Orange County, a cosponsor of the bill along with Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue (D-Wake). 

Last year’s law allows legislators to delete, destroy, sell, or withhold any information they do not want the public to access. 

“I cannot imagine any reason why I would ever need to destroy or sell any of the records that I have from doing the public’s business, other than to possibly hide records that show things that I don’t want the public to have access to,” Meyer said. “And if that’s the case, the public should absolutely have access to.” 

Rep. Tim Longest, who is sponsoring the companion bill in the House along with a group of fellow Democrats, echoed Meyer’s sentiments. “By enshrining the right to access public records in the constitution, we can ensure that the public is informed about the workings of government by shining the light of transparency,” Longest said. “We allow everyday people to be more active and informed participants in our democracy.”  

This isn’t the first time such a bill has been proposed. In 2011, Republican lawmakers proposed a similar constitutional amendment to ensure government transparency. Known as the “Sunshine Amendment” the bill aimed to make public records and meetings more accessible. 

Three current Republican senators, Ralph Hise, Brent Jackson, and Buck Newton were among the sponsors of the 2011 bill. Sen. Meyer said none of the senators agreed this time to be co-sponsors of this latest bill. 

In recent years, lawmakers have been gradually eroding the public’s access to government documents.  

In 2020, following widespread criticism, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed a bill passed by the legislature that would have kept death investigation records in the medical examiner’s possession secret. 

Last month, Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, introduced a proposal to keep autopsy reports in criminal cases confidential from the public until the cases are resolved.  

The provision, which was withdrawn on Tuesday, would have also prevented family members from seeing autopsy reports connected to criminal cases, though district attorneys could have described the reports to them.     

“Public records are the property of the people, and the people in North Carolina have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business,” said Ann Webb, Policy Director with Common Cause North Carolina. 

“This commonsense legislation would help ensure the transparency needed for the public to hold public officials accountable,” she said. “We urge the legislature to pass this proposal and allow North Carolinians to vote on the amendment this fall.”