Democrats in the North Carolina General Assembly introduced a bill Wednesday to amend the North Carolina Constitution to establish the right of access to public records and meetings.

House Bill 1075 and its Senate companion bill, SB 911, aims to disband a rule Republicans passed last year in the state budget that allows lawmakers to be the custodians of their records and arbiters of what constitutes a public record in their emails and other documents. It permitted destroying records if they do not consider them to be subject to public access.

During a press conference on Wednesday, Democratic leaders said they want it to be clear that government officials are beholden to the will of the voters. Bill sponsor Sen. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, called the provision “problematic” and said it allows legislators to destroy records without anyone ever knowing.

“I will say this about that provision. I think that most of our Republican colleagues understand why that particular piece of last year’s law is problematic,” said Meyer. “I think that furthermore, they probably agree with us, that that was an overplay of their hand in the restriction of the records and allowing them to be destroyed or sold.”

With anger and bipartisan outcry from the public, the move earned the North Carolina General Assembly the “Black Hole Award” from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in March. The annual award is bestowed upon one American institution that has shown “outright contempt of the public’s right to know.”

Democrats’ proposed bill would allow voters to amend the state Constitution to ban authorities from restricting access to public meetings and records unless public bodies can demonstrate that the limitation protects a compelling public interest.

Meyer said he asked Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger if he would sponsor the public records bill, but Berger declined. Meyer also asked Republican Senators Ralph Hise, Brent Jackson, and Buck Newton if they would sponsor the bill. The three Republicans declined.

At the press conference, Meyer handed out copies of a 2011 bill that the three Republicans proposed, a constitutional amendment providing that all state and local government public records are open to inspection and copying. 

Asked why the current draft has not gotten bipartisan support so far, Meyer said it can and should. 

“That’s why I asked them,” Meyer told the Carolina Journal. “I think the situation here is that whoever is in power has tended to be the ones that try to limit access to public records, whether it’s Democrats or Republicans. It should be bipartisan because the public broadly expects it. That’s why the John Locke Foundation advocates for it, as does Common Cause.”

When the state budget passed last year, Carolina Journal and the John Locke Foundation built a coalition of media organizations to formally oppose the public records provision in a letter to lawmakers.

Both the 2024 draft and the 2011 draft – sponsored by 23 Republicans – seek to give the people of North Carolina the right to access information concerning the conduct of official public business. 

While it’s unlikely to gain traction due to Republicans’ absent support, Meyer said the simplest agreement with Republicans would be to restrict last year’s law in an amending bill this session. Berger’s office has not responded to a request for comment.

A proposed constitutional amendment must pass the state legislature by a three-fifths vote of both the N.C. House and Senate, rather than a simple majority. If it were to pass this session, the amendment would be placed on the ballot for voter approval for the statewide general election on November 5, 2024.