A mixture of positive and negative changes to state open records laws have slowly been making their way through state legislatures in the past few weeks.
In January, the SPLC reported on a bill in North Dakota that would exempt applicants for top positions at state universities from the state open records act. Since then, several states have filed legislation to change the operation of their respective open records laws.
Ranging from making violations of state open records law a misdemeanor offense, to allowing agencies the right to charge a maximum hourly search fee, here’s the latest on proposed changes in North Carolina, Colorado, Kansas, Indiana and Florida.
North Carolina legislators are considering a bill that would make violations of the state open meetings law and public records law a Class 3 misdemeanor, which can carry fines up to $200. Currently there are no penalties for agencies in the state that are found to have violated government transparency laws.
Senate Bill S77, sponsored by Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, is currently sitting in the Rules and Operations of the Senate Committee without a hearing date scheduled.
Senate Bill 17-40, sponsored by Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins and Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, would require government agencies in the state to make data more accessible to requesters by ensuring easier manipulation. In other words, if someone were to request a list of employee salaries, the agency would be expected to maintain that data in an Excel spreadsheet, which could be given to the requester in a searchable Public Domain File.
The bill would also eliminate a provision of the current open records law that allows public records custodians to charge fees for requesters to make supervised copies or inspections of records.
However, in a reversal from North Carolina’s line of thinking, the bill would eliminate any tangible punishment for agencies who knowingly violate the current law. Any person who knowingly violates the Colorado Open Records Act is currently guilty of a misdemeanor.
The bill was scheduled to be heard on Feb. 15 in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, but the chairman delayed a hearing for a second time due to a need for further amendments with stakeholders.
Kansas lawmakers are considering a bill that would drastically reduce the costs agencies can charge requesters for public records.
Senate Bill 86, sponsored by the Committee on Federal and State Affairs, would continue to allow agencies to charge $0.25 per page for hard copies of records, but would prohibit agencies from charging excessive search fees.
Under the proposed legislation, agencies could only charge for staff time required to produce records at the lowest hourly rate of a qualified staff member. Agencies can currently charge any fees they deem “reasonable” to requesters — for instance, they can charge not just for the time it takes to search for documents but also the time a supervisor spends overseeing the search — and the law does not include any fee waivers.
The Committee on Federal and State Affairs recommended on Feb. 15 that the bill be passed as amended. It is now up to the Speaker of the House to put the bill on the legislative docket for a full debate.
House Bill 1523 passed the Indiana House of Representatives on Feb. 16 by a count of 62-25. Introduced by Rep. Kathy Richardson, R-Noblesville, the legislation would grant state agencies the ability to charge a maximum hourly fee of $20 for any records search that takes over two hours.
Agencies in the state are currently not allowed to charge requesters for time spent retrieving records. According to the Indianapolis Star, similar legislation passed both houses of the Indiana Legislature in 2015, but then-Governor Mike Pence vetoed the bill.
“The cost of public records should never be a barrier to the public’s right to know,” he said at the time.
The bill does prohibit agencies from charging a separate fee for providing records via electronic communication.
The bill was referred to the Indiana Senate on Feb. 17 for further consideration.
Representatives in Florida introduced legislation that would retrench on the state’s historic commitment to open searches for top university leaders.
Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Collier, introduced House Bill 351, which would exempt records from applicants for presidential searches at Florida universities from state open records laws.
According to Florida’s local NPR affiliate, WGCU, Rommel’s bill is not the first time such legislation has been introduced – both Democrat and Republican representatives have unsuccessfully introduced similar bills in recent legislative cycles.
The current round of legislation has been in the House Post-Secondary Education Committee since Feb. 6. The committee is scheduled to meet again Thursday, but the bill is not currently on the docket for discussion.