Some state lawmakers tried to slam the doors shut on the public this week, and Richmond County’s Sen. Gene McLaurin served as a sorely needed doorstop.
McLaurin stood up for public accountability on two fronts, sponsoring an amendment to ensure that all charter school salaries would remain public record and helping to defeat a last-ditch effort to hide government notices on little-used city and county websites.
Lawmakers tried earlier this month to exempt charter school salaries from the state Public Records Act. Current law doesn’t address the issue, but the pay plans are public as a matter of state regulatory policy.
To his credit, Gov. Pat McCrory vowed to veto any legislation that would make charter school salaries confidential. Drafters grudgingly added an acknowledgment that charter school workers — who are paid with our tax dollars — are subject to the same disclosure laws as their counterparts in traditional public schools.
McLaurin noticed some loose language in the bill that could be interpreted to authorize the release of teacher salaries but shield administrators’ pay from public eyes. He sponsored an amendment that would leave no loopholes and no room for creative interpretations.
“People work hard to pay their taxes,” McLaurin said on the Senate floor. “We owe it to them to show where their tax dollars are being spent. All salaries paid with public funds should be known. As long as there are school personnel — whether in traditional public schools or charter schools — being paid for with public funds, we owe it to the people we represent to fully disclose all school salaries.”
Senate leaders immediately went into recess. We’re sure many lawmakers were reluctant to side against the public in a clear up-or-down vote. It’s easier to sneak secrecy provisions into everything-but-the-kitchen-sink bills, a favored tactic of the anti-transparency crowd. The prospect of a vote against taxpayers’ right to know probably made some senators mighty nervous.
So the folks steering the Senate ship reverted to another old trope: Let’s study the issue and kick the can down the road. They introduced an amendment to research disclosure of charter school salaries, ostensibly to make an informed decision later. McLaurin’s amendment never came to a vote.
We should know how much we’re paying our public employees. It doesn’t get much simpler or clearer than that. What’s there to study?
McLaurin also worked to sweep aside a last-minute addition to House Bill 761, a regulatory reform measure, that sought to exempt local governments in Mecklenburg and Guilford counties from public notice requirements for special meetings, land deals, public hearings and other actions.
Under the amendment, city and county governments in two of the state’s largest counties would be allowed to hide public notices on their websites instead of advertising them in local newspapers. Touted as a cost-saving measure, it would leave elderly and low-income residents without home Internet access permanently out of the loop. It’s bad public policy that would result in less-informed communities.
Supporters tried to let the counties wiggle out of public notice laws at least a half-dozen times last year and this year. Each time, lawmakers have batted down this bad idea. But that doesn’t stop influential legislators from those populous counties from continuing to beat what should be a dead horse, adding the problematic provision to unrelated bills.
McLaurin shows an abiding respect for the people who sent him to Raleigh by leading the fight to keep our officials accountable. We’re fortunate to have a state senator who sincerely believes the people are in charge of the government.
Too many of his colleagues think it ought to be the other way around.