The Palmetto Insider

The blog of the South Carolina Policy Council

Clearing Up Confusion on Legislative Transparency

with 2 comments

Today’s Nerve story provides a rare glimpse into how things work in the Legislature and what the legislative leadership thinks about transparency.

For some – namely, Rep. Ralph Norman – transparency means opening up all House caucus meetings to the public. Norman’s call for greater transparency in the House Republican Caucus meeting last night was met with little enthusiasm.

According to Rep. Chip Limehouse, opening up all meetings to the public would hinder the ability of caucus members to openly discuss controversial policy issues. And he has a point … if one assumes representatives don’t want their constituents to know what they actually think about these issues.

That said, the caucus meetings are also used to pass House rules and to elect the speaker. And these are matters that should certainly be open to public scrutiny.

Accordingly, S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster issued a formal opinion in 2006 finding that the House majority caucus is a public body subject to state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requirements. Under state law, all meetings of public bodies must be open to the public. As things stand, only some meetings are open, with the decision made on a case-by-case basis.

But McMaster’s opinion does not carry the force of law – and, thus far, no one has sued the caucus in an attempt to clarify whether the state’s FOIA laws actually apply to the meetings.

Norman’s definition of transparency seems fairly straightforward – the House caucus meetings should be open to the public so that voters can know what their representatives think about contentious issues, such as budget cuts to favored programs. Under such circumstances, Norman also supports an open vote for speaker.

Previously, though, Norman had called for a secret ballot vote for speaker. As The Nerve reports, “He did so because he believes there could be retribution from the current speaker.”

To summarize, this seems to be Norman’s position:

If caucus meetings are going to remain private – and the fear of retribution salient – the speaker should be elected by secret ballot.

But, the better – and apparently, more constitutional – choice is to open up all caucus meetings to the public and retain the current open ballot process for electing the speaker. No doubt, retribution will still be forthcoming, but at least everyone – including the public – will know why.

The irony in all of this is that Speaker Harrell apparently agrees that an open vote for speaker is the most transparent option. But if this is the case, why not also consider opening up all House caucus meetings to the public?

It would seem the speaker, as well as the caucus as a whole, is confused about what transparency really means.

… Except there’s no confusion here. An open vote in a closed-door meeting has nothing to do with transparency and everything to do with power.

To learn more about how the S.C. Legislature is frustrating transparency, freedom and good government, see our new special report calling for legislative reform.


Written by Jameson Taylor

September 30, 2010 at 12:48 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Norman is NOT for transparency. He has made his support of secret votes very clear.

    I am all for open government, but who really thinks it is a good idea to invite Democrats into a Republican strategy meeting. What’s next, “why only invite the Dems into GOP strategy, why not let the Dems make suggestions on GOP strategies too?”

    No Democrats allowed

    October 4, 2010 at 4:09 pm

  2. Thanks for your comment. The question is not about opening up strategy meetings to one party or another, but whether the majority caucus, as such, is a public body subject to state FOIA laws. Attorney General McMaster concluded that is the case. Moreover, because the caucus elects the Speaker of the House – and because the office of speaker is such a powerful position in South Carolina – citizens have a right to know how their representatives vote for speaker.

    Jameson Taylor

    October 6, 2010 at 4:04 pm

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