OPINION: FOIA Exemption Is Mis-guided
Opinion -- FOIA: Exempt Non-profits - Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
By Bill Rogers
There is a wolf in sheep’s clothing working its way through our state legislature.
The bill purports to be a transparency bill, but it is anything but … and it will hide how millions of taxpayer dollars are spent.
The wording begins saying any non-profit entity that “received more than one hundred dollars in public funds from a state agency or political subdivision in the previous calendar year or the current calendar year, must submit a quarterly expenditure report to the jurisdiction awarding the funds.”
That sounds great.
But the final section of the bill, H. 3931, drops a bombshell on openness. It says that an entity filing such a form is exempt from disclosure provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
This means that chambers of commerce, development corporations and publicly supported entities such as museums, charter schools and volunteer fire departments would no longer have to disclose how they spend the millions of public dollars they receive.
Under current law, they must tell the public how money is spent. The FOIA says any entity “supported in whole or in part by public funds” is subject to the provisions of the act. This means their meetings are open to the public and their records must be available to the public.
The Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce challenged this law about their being subject to the FOIA. A Circuit Court ruled they were indeed subject to the law and that ruling was later appealed to the S.C. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in this case in October and is presently considering the case before issuing its ruling.
We hope the current Supreme Court case will reaffirm openness.
A cynic might say this bill is in response to that suit and is a desperate way to keep secret how chambers spend their public money.
Also note that the proposed law’s required reports would provide the public with far less information than what the FOIA is currently able to provide.
This is a very bad bill and should be defeated when it comes before the House Ways & Means Committee.
(Bill Rogers is executive director of the S.C. Press Association, an advocate for open government.)