GFAF’s Legislative Watch: Bad bills and unintended consequences

By Tom Clyde

Protecting Georgians’ right to know about their government requires particular diligence this time of year. The General Assembly is in session.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s mission to watch for and fight against any legislative reduction in the public’s access to government records, meetings and proceedings is one of our most important responsibilities. But the job is not easy. Bad legislation comes in many forms.

Sometimes it looks like Senate Bill 331, which proposes letting the Georgia Lottery Corporation keep the identity of lottery winners secret forever. Clearly, letting a government agency hand out millions of dollars to private citizens with no public record is a bad idea.

More often, however, a bill’s negative impact on transparency is not readily apparent. In good faith, a lawmaker may propose legislation without even anticipating how it could erode government transparency. These are the situations in which the foundation’s 24 years of experience encouraging greater transparency and explaining the unintended consequences of legislative actions comes into play. Our most important roles during the General Assembly session are as watchdog and educator. We look for any proposed legislation that could reduce Georgians’ access to the workings of their government, and we flag these problems for lawmakers.

Here’s a current example. Senate Bill 311 appears to be a well-meaning effort, from a frequent advocate for government openness, to make the audio recordings of court reporters available to the public.  The bill seems to be aimed at fixing a problem created when the Georgia Supreme Court recently held such recordings are not official court records and, therefore, are not required to be made available to the public. The effect of the Court’s decision has broad implications, but one clear outcome has been that producers of popular courtroom podcasts have no guaranteed access to recordings — usually paid for by taxpayer dollars — that provide audio records of criminal trials.

But in an effort to fix that problem, Senate Bill 311 would radically change the way citizens get court records — all court records, not just recordings. The bill would bring court records under Georgia’s Open Records Act, which, unfortunately, is littered with exceptions, fees and opportunities for delay. The bill needs to be narrowed under the principle of “do no harm.” Otherwise, we are better off with our current laws. We will work with the Legislature to shape the bill so it more closely aligns with First Amendment standards.

Thank you for your support of the foundation and our mission. Know that we are watching and will keep you posted on what’s happening under the Gold Dome. We appreciate that you care about government transparency as much as we do.

Tom Clyde, a GFAF board member and co-chair of the foundation’s Legal Committee, is a First Amendment attorney and partner at Kilpatrick Townsend.

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