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A troubling trend toward secrecy

Suspicion of all things government-related is a fundamental tenet of the Republican Party and generally a valuable one. History demonstrates that the public must keep a vigilant eye on government and politicians to ensure that they are acting in the best interests of the citizenry, not just themselves.

One would think that North Carolina’s Republican legislature would be especially aggressive about revealing government actions to the public. Its leaders regularly rail against the dangers of big government and point to its repeated failures.

It’s that posture that makes the legislature’s current efforts to build up secrecy around government so puzzling. Instead of validating their skepticism of government by laying bare its actions for all to see, Republicans are repeatedly concealing government doings and public spending. It makes one wonder: Whom are they trying to serve?

The most egregious recent example was a House vote Thursday to exempt charter schools from the open-government laws that all other public schools obey. Public schools must report how they are spending taxpayer money, including individuals’ salaries. Charter schools are subject to those same rules. That would change under an amendment from Mecklenburg Rep. Charles Jeter. It would allow charter schools, which receive millions in public money, to keep secret employee names when reporting salaries, including those of top administrators.

This was a flip-flop for Jeter. He had it right this spring when he told the Observer that charter schools have to follow public records laws. “You can’t pick and choose when it’s convenient,” he said then. “If they want to play in that arena, they need to play by public law.”

Other areas where the legislature is trying to keep government actions secret:

• The legislature passed, and Gov. Pat McCrory signed last week, a law privatizing the state’s economic development efforts. The law says that the state can offer millions in tax incentives to woo companies to the state and never reveal that information publicly if the company doesn’t come to North Carolina. If taxpayer dollars are being offered to private business, that should be public eventually regardless of how the project plays out.

• The Senate, so far, has refused to pass a bill requiring that political candidates file their campaign finance information electronically. Filing on paper makes analyzing the information much harder for the public. The House passed a bill last week requiring electronic disclosure. But it did so last year, too, before the bill rotted in a Senate committee.

• Rep. Chris Malone, R-Wake, is pushing a bill that would let certain people hide their property tax records from the public. Malone’s bill would let police officers, prosecutors, judges, magistrates and deputies pull their information off government websites. The list of professions that would benefit from keeping their property tax information private is never-ending; giving special treatment to some and not others is unworkable.

Government works best when it is most open to public scrutiny. N.C. Republicans should understand that better than anyone.

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