Editorial – Open and honest government seems elusive

Editorial – Open and honest government  seems elusive
November 25
00:00 2015

How open and honest is state government in North Carolina? Not very, according to a new report from the Center for Public Integrity.

The center’s 2015 State Integrity Investigation gave our state a D grade. In part, that’s because there’s a pretty significant gulf between what the law requires and what state agencies actually do. State records laws are specific about what’s public and what’s not.

But heel-dragging in producing documents is routine. And no state official or board has the power to compel compliance. If you can’t get the documents you want, you’ve got to go to court, which many individuals can’t afford. And even when institutions like the news media do file suit, the courts move slowly.

Then there are the disclosures that lobbyists are required to make about spending, donations and other efforts to influence the passage of legislation. The disclosure laws are pretty good, but budget cuts in the past few years have eliminated nearly half of the staff charged with reviewing the reports. Bills can be passed and signed into law before the public knows what special interests were behind them.

[Consider the 2013 measure restricting voting rights. Many lawmakers say they even didn’t have time to study the measure before it was put to a vote.]

And consider judicial oversight, which has all but collapsed behind a secret curtain. Until 2013, we had a state Judicial Standards Commission that disciplined judges for wrongdoing. Much of its proceedings were public. But the General Assembly handed judicial oversight to the state Supreme Court and made disciplinary hearings private. Case records are confidential unless the high court takes disciplinary action.

All of that is eye-opening and discouraging. But what’s really remarkable is that North Carolina’s D grade is pretty good, if we put it in national context. We rank 18th out of 50 states. And if you grade on a curve, a D becomes a B, because not one state got an A or a B and only three got C or C-minus grades – Alaska, California and Connecticut.

We’re hoping our lawmakers will feel a new incentive to create more open government, thanks to the UNC Board of Governors’ actions in closed meetings that led to the selection of a new system president and substantial raises for a dozen chancellors. The secrecy infuriated top legislative leaders, who had called for an open selection process and imposed stringent spending limits on the university system. We hope their outrage leads to cutting the fog of secrecy that hides too much of our government.

Remember those two words: Our government.

The Fayetteville Observer

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