- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 31, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A new law closing loopholes in South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act represents “a big step forward” in government transparency, Gov. Henry McMaster said Wednesday at a ceremonial signing.

The law requires state and local governments, school districts, and other public entities to respond more quickly to public records requests and prevents them from charging excessive fees.

The law took effect with McMaster’s signature May 19, which capped a seven-year effort to strengthen public access to government records.

“This is a good law. The people ought to know what’s going on in government and why it’s going on,” McMaster said.

But it doesn’t go far enough, he added.

To get the bill to his desk, the Senate stripped out a section creating a state hearing officer to quickly and cheaply settle disputes.

Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, whose objections killed a nearly identical bill last year, insisted on the change. The Walterboro Democrat said she opposes the estimated $140,000 cost of creating a new division in the Administrative Law Court.

That leaves suing in circuit court the only way for people and news outlets to force a public body to comply with the law, which requires hiring a lawyer.

It previously also meant possibly waiting years for a decision. The Senate compromise, which requires an initial court hearing within 10 days, is meant to expedite matters.

“But it’s still in circuit court, and that’s a cumbersome way to go,” McMaster said.

The law gives public bodies 10 business days to say whether they will or won’t supply the requested information and, in most cases, a month more to actually provide it. If the data requested is more than two years old, agencies have 20 days to decide and 35 days to deliver.

Previous law gave 15 business days to respond to a FOIA request, but agencies could interpret the vague wording to mean they simply had to acknowledge receipt. There was no timeline for actually providing the information, essentially allowing requests to be ignored indefinitely.

The law “represents a great step forward but does not represent the stopping point in terms of promoting transparency,” said its chief sponsor, Rep. Weston Newton, a Bluffton Republican.

He and Rep. Bill Taylor, who started the push for strengthening FOIA after winning office in 2010, say their efforts will continue next year.

McMaster said he also wants legislators to apply the law to themselves. Currently, legislators’ correspondence and other records are exempt from public disclosure. Efforts to remove the exemption killed previous proposals.

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