- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 23, 2016

ATLANTA (AP) - College athletic departments in Georgia would have 90 days - instead of three - to respond to almost all open-records requests under a bill that has swept through the state’s legislature.

Lawmakers approved the exemption to the current law Tuesday night.

It was introduced by Republican Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs, who said he wants to fend off competing athletic programs from other states that are looking for information about athletes being recruited by Georgia schools. Ehrhart said that during recruiting periods, schools are inundated with records requests, and at times, forced to hire additional staff to handle the workflow.

“This is not something that puts taxpayer dollars at risk,” he said. “We are just talking about recruiting information.”

Open records advocates blasted the proposed change.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said no other state carves out exemptions for college athletic departments’ records, and he knows of no other state that gives so much time for any agency to produce public records.

“This is really unprecedented,” LoMonte said.

He said rapid responses to open records requests have helped journalists uncover NCAA violations.

“You could construct a scenario where an agency needed three months if it involves digging through archives, but that certainly shouldn’t be the standard for even the most basic request,” said LoMonte.

The bill does maintain the three-day limit for departments to produce records related to salary information on “nonclerical staff,” but that isn’t good enough, said Georgia First Amendment Foundation Executive Director Hollie Manheimer.

“It would make secret contract terms, letters of complaint or inquiry from the NCAA, plans for the expenditure of university and athletic association funds, and even more,” she said. “No other public agency in Georgia is given 90 days to conduct its business in secret.”

Support for Georgia’s college athletes pervades each session, with lawmakers wearing their team colors and lining up for photos with visiting coaches, including the University of Georgia’s newly named football coach, Kirby Smart, in February. Ehrhart, a UGA alumnus, posted a photo that day of himself standing next to Smart at the Capitol.

The open-records exemption was attached Tuesday to another bill that allows state agencies to decline records requests relating to ongoing economic development projects to attract new businesses or expand existing Georgia companies until a deal is announced. Floor leaders for Gov. Nathan Deal, who shepherd bills backed by the administration through the legislature, sponsored the original bill.

Jen Talaber Ryan, a spokeswoman for Deal, declined to comment Wednesday about whether he backs the athletic department provision.

Georgia law gives Deal 40 days to act on any bills following the legislature’s adjournment, which is set for Thursday.

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