“We protected the police officers who protect our constitutional officers and my family by keeping their information and security tactics exempt from Freedom of Information Act disclosure,” Sanders said before signing the measure, about two hours after for legislators to give it their final approval.
Sanders and Republicans in the Legislature had initially pushed for broader exemptions to the open records law, but backed off after facing growing criticism that it would erode government transparency.
Some opponents of the broader waivers for other state agencies that had initially been proposed backed the legislation after it was narrowed to safety measures. But it still faces criticism that it will keep the public in the dark about how taxpayer money is spent.
Democratic Rep. Andrew Collins said protecting the governor and her family is a good reason to exempt the release of some records, but that it should only be done in the strictest way possible.
“But I don’t think this is as strict as it can be,” said Collins, who voted against the bill.
Sanders sought the security exemptions when the State Police was sued by an attorney and blogger who accused the agency of illegally withholding records about the governor’s travel and security. But Matthew Campbell, who runs the website Blue Hog Report, asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit after Campbell said he had tested positive for COVID-19 and that he would not be able to attend a hearing scheduled for Thursday. Campbell posted on X, formerly Twitter, that he may refile the lawsuit.
The new law requires the state to file a quarterly report with the Legislature listing the monthly costs of protecting the governor by category. The law is also retroactive to June 1, 2022, a provision that State Police said was necessary to protect the preparation done for whoever would become the next governor after that year’s party primaries.
Supporters of the bill said the governor’s higher profile has increased the security risk she and her family face.
“No offense to any of our past governors, I can’t think of one, at least in recent memory, who was a household name like our current governor is,” Republican Rep. David Ray told House members before the vote.
The broader exemptions originally sought sparked protests from media groups, transparency advocates and some conservatives who said they would create massive holes in the state’s public records law.
Sanders left open the possibility of pursuing other changes later, which she said are necessary to improve government efficiency.
“We are not going to stop fighting for greater efficiency and effectiveness in government, and I believe this is just the beginning of this process,” Sanders said.
David Couch, an attorney who has led successful ballot initiatives on medical marijuana and the minimum wage, said he is considering one that would enshrine the state’s open records law in the constitution.
“I think it would be overwhelmingly popular,” Couch said.
Sanders signed other measures of the session, including legislation reducing the state’s top individual income tax rate from 4.7% to 4.4% and the corporate rate from 5.1 to 4.8 percent. The legislation also creates a one-time non-refundable tax credit of up to $150 for individuals and up to $300 for married couples earning less than $90,000 a year. The reductions are estimated to cost the state more than $248 million in the first year.
Sanders also signed legislation prohibiting state and local governments from requiring anyone to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The measure reinstates a similar 2021 law that expired last month. Any public entity that requires someone to be vaccinated to receive federal funds would have to seek approval from the Legislative Council to receive an exemption under the law.