The North Carolina General Assembly earned the infamous ‘Black Hole Award’ from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in March, which is an annual award bestowed upon one institution from across America that has shown “outright contempt of the public’s right to know.” The last time a state legislature was recognized was in 2012, when both Georgia and Wisconsin earned the award.

To qualify for the Black Hole Award, an institution must show an egregious violation of open government law that impacts the general public. The NC General Assembly’s recognition comes six months after the General Assembly violated the public’s right to know by changing the state’s public records law within the state budget. A provision within the budget legislation allows lawmakers total discretion over destroying records.

Using the term ‘custodian’ to indicate a legislator, the budget reads: “the custodian of any General Assembly record shall determine, in the custodian’s discretion, whether a record is a public record and whether to turn over to the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, or retain, destroy, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of, such records.”

By making a public records exemption for North Carolina lawmakers, it is entirely up to them to decide what public records, if any, to reveal. Sterling Cosper, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Co-chair, emphasized that citizens are the bosses and have a right to information pertaining to their money and vote.

As Executive Director of the NC Press Association, Phil Lucey says North Carolinians have been left in the dark.

“The people of North Carolina deserve open and accessible governance. Legislative action – and inaction – have kept our state at the bottom of every transparency ranking,” Lucey stated to the Carolina Journal. “The move by the General Assembly allowing lawmakers themselves to determine what qualifies as a ‘public record’ and then to destroy, or, for reasons no one can begin to justify, even sell documents hides the work of our elected officials in deep dark corners and back rooms far from public view.  The public has always been in the dark regarding state employee disciplinary records, and it is time for a sea change on that front.”

The Government Transparency Act of 2023 was introduced by a group of bipartisan North Carolina senators last March. The bill would allow North Carolinians to hold elected leaders accountable when it comes to hiring, firing, and other personnel action.

The bill was referred to the Committee on Rules and Operations of the Senate on March 9, 2023, but no further action has been taken since then. While the bill itself is ineligible for consideration in this year’s short session, legislators could still further transparency initiatives by adding the language to an existing bill. 

According to Lucey, the Act would provide more openness during a time when public trust in government is extremely low:

“I applaud the recent actions of Sen Meyer, releasing over 142,000 emails to the public and to Sens Rabon, Sanderson, and Meyer, who have continued to push for more openness through the Government Transparency Act,” stated Lucey. “With public distrust of government officials growing, now is the time to shine more light on the process, not to turn it off. This idea of government accountability through public records is a must-have for those who are champions of a transparent and open government. And a general description of disciplinary actions has been kept secret from the public for far too long in North Carolina. It’s high time we joined the ranks of the most transparent states by passing The Government Transparency Act. Let’s get North Carolina at the top of the list of the most transparent states and out of the basement.”

The parameters of the short session are specifically tailored to try to keep the flow of business down, restricting legislative actions mostly to budget-related adjustments. However, crossover bills can make the cut, even if they don’t fall under appropriations or finance. Crossover bills allow legislation from the previous year to be considered during the subsequent short session. This year, more than 250 bills are considered eligible during the 2024 short session. Bills may undergo changes, including the insertion of new bill text, before being sent back for concurrence.

When the short session begins in late April, legislators could make efforts to prioritize public transparency by either adding the language to an existing bill or filing a technical corrections bill.

“Legislators should reconsider the language of that provision during the 2024 short session,” Andy Jackson, Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, wrote last fall. “While the public records language in the budget is a problem, it is a fixable problem. If the intent behind the bill is to settle a dispute over archiving records at the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, as Sen. Berger said, then the language can be narrowed as part of a technical corrections bill during the General Assembly’s 2024 short session.”

The Carolina Journal reached out to members of the General Assembly for comment but received no response by the time of publication.