The General Assembly’s Job Number One should be focusing on recovery from the economic devastation wreaked by the COVID-19 pandemic, with particular attention paid to immediately fixing the state’s broken unemployment benefits system.
But in the 2020 short session, lawmakers have also turned their attention to other matters, one of which is welcome news indeed.
Reps. Steven Ross (R-Alamance) and Mitchell Setzer (R-Catawba) have introduced House Bill 1111, also known as the “Sunshine Amendment.’’
Simply put, the legislation gets serious about safeguarding the public’s right to know what their government is up to. It would codify that right in the N.C. Constitution and add requirements that any move to curb current public access to government records and meetings would have to clear a supermajority – two-thirds of the vote – in both the state House and Senate.
If the measure clears the legislature, it will be on the statewide ballot as a constitutional amendment in November for approval by N.C. voters. Similar measures have passed in California and Florida by wide margins.
The need for such an amendment is obvious. Elected officials and the state bureaucracy work for and are paid by the taxpayers. It’s our right to know where our tax dollars are going and how decisions are made.
The matter has added urgency here in the days of coronavirus, when the very nature of public meetings has changed radically from in-person gatherings to Zoom meetings, emails, instant messaging and texts. Those are all public record.
Another good reason is the contraction of media in the state, particularly the press corps covering state government. We live in a state with a population of 10 million people, and a big, complex government serves their need. The press needs every bit of help it can in keeping the public informed.
Media lawyer John Bussian, who represents the N.C. Press Association and the Carolina Journal, told CJ “Given the light the virus crisis has shed on the need for government accountability — and the need for the government to be upfront with people — there couldn’t be a better time for the Sunshine Amendment to be put on the ballot.”
This one’s a no-brainer. We hope legislative leaders give it the attention it deserves.