S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/06.0122.caucus.htm


More secrecy not needed in state government
By Andy Brack
Publisher
SC Statehouse Report

JAN. 22, 2006 - - At a time when people's confidence in government is reaching new lows, government doesn't need to be more secret. But in Columbia, that's just what House GOP leaders seem to want.

In Washington, the U.S. House is scrambling to make patches to ethics laws following the downfall of powerful U.S. Rep. Tom Delay and the corruption investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials.

Meanwhile across town, President Bush continues to take criticism for snooping by big government investigative agencies. Nearby at Andrew Air Force Base, caskets of soldiers who died in the Iraq war continue to arrive quietly to keep the pictures off the televised airways.

This renewed culture of American secrecy is dripping into our state. Over the summer, a project by major newspapers, the Associated Press and the S.C. Press Association showed some municipal police agencies use monetary barriers that keep regular folks from getting access to public information. The study also highlighted how local governing boards also went into secret session too much for things that should be public.

Now in Columbia, leaders of the House and Senate Republican caucuses want caucus meetings to be private - - even though many lawmakers have said the public's business should be done in public.

In fact, it's the law. "Every meeting of all public bodies shall be open to the public," says the state's Freedom of Information Law. It goes on to list five reasons that public bodies may close meetings: discussions of personnel matters, contracts, matters related to the development of "security personnel or devices," investigative proceedings and industrial recruitment.

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Nowhere in the law does it say public officials can meet secretly as a group for political discussions.

The law says meetings of public officials should be in public whenever there is a quorum - - a simple majority - - of members present. The law specifically says legislative committees and subcommittees must comply.

House Majority Leader Jim Merrill, R-Daniel Island, and Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, surely are doing their jobs in trying to change state law to allow their caucuses to meet in secret. Both caucuses have a majority of members of each chamber.

It's understandable they want to talk party politics and develop strategies so they can beat opponents on the floor. And yes, caucuses are political organizations, not formal government structures.

But whenever more than half of the elected members of a body get together, they constitute a quorum. In the House, a meeting of 63 members constitutes a quorum; the House GOP caucus has 74 members. In the Senate, 24 members make a quorum; the Senate Republican caucus has 26 members. By law, caucus meetings with a majority of House or Senate members present should be open.

More importantly, operating in more secrecy is a dangerous threat to liberty. Because the party has majorities in both chambers, there's a reasonable fear that real legislative business, such as the selection of the House speaker in the spring, may actually get done in the caucus instead of an open, general session.

For years, local governments across the nation were plagued by the practice of a few key officials having "the meeting before the meeting" when those in power gathered before a public meeting to decide what would happen when the public meeting started.

Keeping caucus meetings closed smacks of this notion.

State lawmakers are public servants who get their power and pay from citizens. In serving the public, legislators should do all of their business in public.

The late Supreme Court jurist Louis Brandeis once said, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant." In other words, doing the public's business in the open is best way for a democracy to operate.

As more people are frustrated by government, state officials should be doing more to create transparency and accountability, not less.

lighter side
1/22: Medicare care

Another great cartoon from Bill McLemore:

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feedback
1/18: Raising cigarette tax should curb illegal drug use

To the editor:

I'm so glad you are urging the Legislature to raise cigarette taxes. [Commentary, 1/8 ] I was impressed with your research and arguments to do so, especially "The ACS says increasing cigarette taxes by 93 cents would likely cause youth smoking to drop by 18.8 percent, which would result in 57,500 fewer youth smokers and 40,000 fewer adult smokers."

Following from that, here's an argument nobody ever relates to this issue in South Carolina: According to the American Lung Association, adolescents who smoke tobacco are three times more likely to use alcohol, eight times more likely to smoke marijuana, and 22 times more likely to use cocaine.

Therefore, raising the cigarette tax will reduce illegal alcohol and drug use among adolescents...and this is a significant benefit. Furthermore, kids are more likely to smoke when their parents smoke (I'm sorry I don't have a statistic to back this up at the moment), and if parents quit, kids are once again less likely to smoke (and then use mj, alcohol, etc.).

I do wish someone (you!) would get this point across--there are so many more benefits to raising the cost of cigarettes than people realize.

-- Sharon Fratepietro, Charleston, S.C.

Recent feedback:


scorecard

Here's a "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" related to various political news items from the past week:

Thumbs up

Wilkins. Former Speaker David Wilkins, as affable as he was when he was a member of the House for a quarter of a century, was honored by the unveiling of a his portrait on Thursday in the House chamber. He is now ambassador to Canada, appointed by President Bush, but he was back in Columbia for the unveiling and, by his own admission, "I appreciate warm" weather and greetings.

Sheheen, Matthews. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, and Sen. John W. Matthews Jr., D-Orangeburgs, eparately raised issues on charter schools and property tax changes that gave even Republicans pause. Sheheen said he couldn't justify tax relief for 20 percent of homeowners and a tax increase for 80 percent. Matthews said in a televised interview that he supports continuance of a public school system rather than switching to charter schools.

Thumbs down

Ryberg. A sack of potatoes to Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, who stopped the swift progress of a bill that would give the Department of Transportation the right to charge tolls on Interstate 73 when it is constructed. The House passed the bill without referring it to committee last week, and the Senate was prepared to do the same thing when Ryberg wanted the bill referred to his Transportation Committee for no apparent reason. Ryberg is running for state treasurer and should have thought about the votes he could lose in 10 eastern counties where I-73 would be constructed.

GOP leaders. Thumbs down to Republican leaders in the House and Senate who want to close their caucuses to the public, despite state law to the contrary, continue to use taxpayer support to run their caucuses, hire their staffs and pay no rent on their offices, even though they claim the caucuses aren't official parts of state government.


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Just a quick note to let you know how you missed out this week. If you were a subscriber to the paid edition of Statehouse Report, you would have received the information below on Friday AND you would have gotten other special features:

  • NUMBER OF THE WEEK: 24
  • HOT ISSUE: No clear direction on taxes
  • LEGISLATIVE AGENDA: Property taxes to start in House
  • PALMETTO POLITICS: A new drinking game
  • BLOGROLL: From this week's blogs
  • FEEDBACK: Right on raising cigarette taxes
  • TALLY SHEET: Campus recruiting and more
  • MEGAPHONE: Term limits

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