NC Senate maneuvers again to keep public records bill alive

Published 6:03 am Thursday, September 23, 2021

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By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

North Carolina Senate Republicans have used another parliamentary maneuver to try to get legislation to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk that would increase public access to the personnel history of government employees.

The Senate voted Wednesday for a House measure that would permanently authorize certain electronic notarizations — but not before approving an amendment that inserts the personnel record language from another bill that cleared the Senate in June.

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The language in the June measure, backed by the North Carolina Press Association, would make public short explanations of why a North Carolina state or local government employee was transferred, demoted or suspended. Current law states the “general description of the reasons” for a worker’s promotion is a public record.

Wednesday’s updated bill now goes to the House, which approved the notary bill almost unanimously in the spring.

GOP Sen. Norm Sanderson of Pamlico County said after Wednesday’s vote he’s hopeful combining the notary and public records measures into one will provide “just a little incentive” for House counterparts to consider the personnel language, since the House backs the notary changes.

“So we’ll see how important it is to them,” said Sanderson, who has shepherded the personnel bill this year.

The House could vote to accept the Senate’s combination notary-personnel measure as early as Thursday — giving it final legislative approval — or send it to a negotiating committee. The legislature likely won’t adjourn for the year until the end of October.

The North Carolina Press Association has said the public records proposal would boost transparency of how taxpayer-funded workers are performing, and that a majority of the states have similar or greater public access to records. It’s opposed by many Democrats and the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which says it would unfairly burden workers to fight personnel descriptions they find untrue or misleading, damaging their careers.

Sanderson said House leaders have been sending “some really mixed signals” about whether they’re serious about considering the personnel language. Two meetings between House and Senate negotiators about the bill passed in June, including one this week, have been poorly attended, Sanderson said.

All but two Senate Democrats present Wednesday voted against the amendment or the combined measure. Sen. Natasha Marcus, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, questioned whether adding the amendment violated the chamber’s rules. But Senate leader Phil Berger allowed the amendment to be heard, saying both topics were sufficiently relevant to each other to be combined.

SEANC Executive Director Ardis Watkins said it was “comical” that a proposal purporting to promote transparency was being pushed through the Senate using what she called a “bullying tactic.”

“Horse trading is a part of politics but bartering over working people’s privacy rights is a new low,” Watkins said in a news release.

Cooper, who would be asked to sign any final bill into law, sponsored a personnel records measure similar to Sanderson’s original legislation when he was in the Senate in the 1990s. He told reporters in June he wanted to see what legislators pass before saying what he thinks about it.

Sanderson’s original bill failed to pass the Senate before the General Assembly’s self-imposed deadline in May designed to whittle the number of measures qualifying for the rest of the two-year session. Several weeks later, Senate Republicans revived the idea by replacing the language of an unrelated bill that passed the House with the public records provisions, then approving it.