Citizens would have far easier access to state and local government records and meetings in South Carolina under a wide-ranging S.C. House bill introduced Thursday.
The legislation was based largely on transparency recommendations released in December by the South Carolina Policy Council – The Nerve’s parent organization, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rob Harris, R-Spartanburg.
“I had been gnawing on this idea and when I read it (the Policy Council’s proposals), I said, ‘There’s the kind of basic framework, the skeleton, of what needs to be done,’ and I just ran with it and got some other help,” Harris told The Nerve in an interview Thursday afternoon.
“Transparency increases accountability and inspires confidence in our public institutions,” said Bryce Fiedler, the Policy Council’s senior policy analyst, in a written statement. “We applaud the members who have signed on to this legislation and encourage other members to do so in the interest of open government.”
The bill, titled the “Government Transparency Act” and co-sponsored by 13 other House Republicans, would require that:
*Local school board and state legislative committees, including the Judicial Merit Selection Commission, which nominates judicial candidates, provide “live electronic access,” such as livestreaming, of public meetings, including archiving of the recordings for later viewing.
*Local and county government agencies and school districts publish on their websites required employee compensation; budgets, audits and financial reports; a detailed list of local taxes and fees; a searchable database of revenues and expenditures; and documents circulated during open meetings within 24 hours after the meetings.
*State agencies currently exempted from reporting the salaries of higher-paid employees to the S.C. Department of Administration provide that information quarterly to the department or post it on their own websites. Currently, 16 state entities, including the Judicial Department and state-owned utility Santee Cooper, are exempt.
*State agencies making annual budget requests post on their websites full descriptions of the need and purpose of any recurring or new appropriations.
*Lawmakers requesting state budget earmarks for specific projects or programs put in writing details about the request, including the sponsoring legislator’s name, and the amount, purpose and recipient of the money. Requests would have to be posted on the Legislature’s website within 24 hours of the filings.
The bill mirrors the Policy Council’s proposals, which cover livestreaming of school board and legislative meetings; government spending, including earmarks; and access to public records at the state and local levels.
A Policy Council poll released last June found that nearly 80% of likely S.C. voters strongly or somewhat supported requiring school boards and other local government bodies to broadcast their public meetings on the internet.
The Nerve for years repeatedly has pointed out the lack of transparency when it comes to salaries of higher-paid employees in certain state agencies, budget earmarks, and the screening process for judges.
Asked about transparency in general in state and local government in South Carolina, Harris, a freshman lawmaker, told The Nerve, “It’s bad, and even in the Legislature … with the procedure of voting, if they don’t have to be on the record, they don’t like to be,” adding, “Nobody should ever be afraid of how they vote, and I’m never going to hide that.”
South Carolina citizens are entitled to know how their state and local government agencies operate, Harris said.
“Right here, moms and dads are dealing with their little part of government, and it’s not transparent,” he said. “That’s why I included (in the bill) all the documentation (requirements).”
In the end, Harris said, “These are all public servants, and the public agencies are spending our tax dollars,” adding, “Why would anyone in the world want to make that secret, except that they have ulterior motives?”
Besides Harris, the bill’s co-sponsors include Republican Reps. Thomas Beach of Anderson County, April Cromer of Anderson County, Jay Kilmartin of Lexington County, Brian Lawson of Cherokee County, Josiah Magnuson of Spartanburg County, RJ May of Lexington County, Travis Moore of Spartanburg County, Adam Morgan of Greenville County, Alan Morgan of Greenville County, Roger Nutt of Spartanburg County, David O’Neal of York County, Jordan Pace of Berkeley County and Ashley Trantham of Greenville County.
The bill was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Bruce Bannister, R-Greenville. The official deadline this year for one chamber of the 170-member Legislature to pass legislation to be considered by the other chamber is April 10.