'Sunshine' in the House
Posted March 16, 2011 4:28 p.m. EDT
Updated March 16, 2011 5:33 p.m. EDT
The House will vote tomorrow on a proposed constitutional amendment protecting public access to government records and meetings.
House Bill 87, the “Sunshine Amendment,” wouldn’t change or enhance any public records laws currently in effect. But as of 2013, it would prohibit state and local lawmakers from enacting new restrictions on access to records or meetings.
The guarantee wouldn’t cover every part of government. The House Rules Committee amended the bill today to remove the judicial branch.
Backers of the change say the judiciary is already covered by a constitutional provision, and they want to avoid unintended consequences.
“I don’t think we need to go any further into judicial deliberations,” said Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford. “They’re required to have their proceedings open, but I don’t think we need to delve behind the scenes in another branch of government.”
The measure would also give future legislators an escape hatch. In cases of "public necessity,” they could still decide to restrict access to certain public records with a three-fifths vote (a supermajority) in both chambers.
Rep. Bill Faison, D-Orange, argued the measure shouldn’t be a constitutional amendment at all.
“Constitutional amendments set forth a principle of rights of the people which the courts can judge all legislation against,” Faison said. “This thing says the legislature can alter it. Well, there’s no other constitutional provision the legislature can alter. The very idea of a constitutional amendment is that the legislature can't alter it.
“I’d support this as a statute,” Faison said. “But as a constitutional amendment, it’s just bizarre.”
The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, said putting the guarantee into the state constitution is the only way to keep future lawmakers from rewriting the law or repealing it altogether.
“To me, the constitution gives you rights,” LaRoque said. “As long as it’s just a law that can be changed with a simple majority, then it’s just a privilege that’s granted by the General Assembly.”