A quiet attempt to keep more secrets

The Observer editorial board

An N.C. budget provision could keep most police records secret.
An N.C. budget provision could keep most police records secret. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Here’s what you get when you combine a legislative penchant for secrecy with a willingness to use the annual budget as a vehicle to make changes in N.C. law:

On Page 332 of the N.C. Senate’s proposed budget, a yet-unidentified lawmaker has inserted three new provisions in the state’s public records law. One would make unavailable to the public “any specific security information or detailed plans, patterns or practices to prevent or respond to criminal, gang or organized illegal activity.”

Practically speaking, that would mean most every police department record, including police reports on arrests, could be kept secret.

House and Senate budget conferees should make sure this language, along with a similarly broad provision on prison operations, is not in the final budget.

Such policy measures don’t belong in budgets in the first place. As we’ve said previously in this space, legislators in both parties have too often used this tactic to get policy and law changed in North Carolina. Often, they do so at the last minute, so that the items get little if any debate before being voted on.

Those measures belong in separate bills that can be debated publicly, so that North Carolinians have a voice and an understanding of what their legislators support. That’s especially true of fundamental changes in public records law, which these Senate budget provisions propose.

There’s long been a tension between public officials who resist transparency and those of us who believe it’s important to know how our government conducts its business. Without that knowledge, government officials – including police – would be able to operate without critical external accountability.

We believe police as a whole operate with integrity and honor in difficult circumstances. But as we’ve often learned, some act inappropriately. The public, which happens to pay the bills, shouldn’t be shielded from information about those mistakes.

The same is true for N.C.’s prison system, which operates a $1.1 billion annual budget. Should the public know how those tax dollars are spent, with limited exceptions for sensitive information? Of course. Perhaps not coincidentally, Charlotte Observer reporters have been asking recently for those kinds of records from state prison officials.

It’s telling that no senator has raised a hand to take credit for the new public records provisions. Senate leader Phil Berger’s office told the editorial board Friday that the Department of Public Safety requested the law be changed, but that it wasn’t Berger who was behind those changes finding their way into the budget.

N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory is among the many who’ve criticized that practice, and we’ve urged him to veto any future budgets littered with misplaced policy and law. Lawmakers shouldn’t let this dangerous policy even reach the House or Senate floor.