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N.C. Opinions: Greensboro

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A tax on information

From an editorial Saturday in the (Greensboro) News & Record:

The McCrory administration is only running government like a business by charging for public records. So, perhaps residents also can expect bills for:

Crossing bridges and driving on state roads. Visiting state parks. Watching UNC television. Calling the Highway Patrol for assistance. Filing for jobless benefits. Voting. Talking with state workers.

The government deserves to charge a reasonable user’s fee, right? Well, no. Most everyday government services are paid for through taxes, not fees. In some cases, the law says so. Public records “are the property of the people” and must be made available “free or at minimal cost.”

In the past, “minimal cost” has been interpreted to mean the cost of paper or computer discs. That’s reasonable. If someone requests thousands of pages of documents, he should pay for the paper. If those documents are available in electronic form, however, the cost should be very little, if anything.

The McCrory administration has drastically changed this policy. It is charging for the staff time it supposedly takes to answer public records requests. Because the governor’s office and some of his agencies pay their staff very generously, the charges range up to $54 an hour.

The governor’s office also has hired high-priced lawyers, who should give better advice. These outrageous charges violate the Public Records Law.

Furthermore, this policy reflects an attitude that the public is an adversary that gets in the way of government business. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos said as much during a legislative hearing in October: Complying with requests for records “is very time-consuming for us and is pulling us away from the work we should be doing ...”

The work all public servants should be doing is ... serving the public. That includes providing documents that contain information about public projects, outline expenditures of public dollars and explain public policies.

Charging for that time places a big obstacle between the public and public information. It discourages people from asking questions. It puts a toll in front of open government.

It’s not facetious to wonder what’s next. Calling a state agency for assistance or information also requires a commitment of staff time to answer – the same staff time it takes to locate an electronic file and email it to a citizen. So perhaps a phone call to a state agency will draw this response: “Thanks for calling the Department of Health and Human Services. I’m here to serve you. My rate is $54 an hour.”

But is that the kind of business state government should be?

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