Governor signs Open Records rewrite into law

Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday signed into law a sweeping revision of the state's Open Records Act that strengthens the public's access to records and documents.

Deal had planned to put the proposal into law following a speech to the Atlanta Press Club, but the official copy was inadvertently left at the Capitol. He affixed his signature once he returned to the Gold Dome.

House Bill 397, which took effect upon Deal's signature, is the first major rewrite of Georgia’s sunshine laws in more than a decade. New provisions in the open records and meetings laws increase fines for offenders. The maximum penalty of $500 is now $1,000, and offenders who commit repeat violations within a year face fines of up to $2,500.

Previously, the sunshine laws allowed only criminal complaints to be filed against suspected violators, meaning a prosecutor would have to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. The rewrite now allows the filing of civil complaints, which have a lower burden of proof.

The rewrite also would provide new exemptions for some gatherings of governing bodies, such as allowing a quorum of members to attend the same civic function, receive training or visit government agencies -- provided no official business is discussed or transpires. It also reduces the cost of most documents disclosed under the Open Records Act from 25 cents to 10 cents per page.

Deal praised the news media for not opposing his request for a new exemption involving state economic development incentives being offered to companies that would build new large projects in Georgia or expand existing facilities here. Deal singled out Kevin Riley, editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in his remarks.

Deal thanked "everybody we dealt with, Kevin Riley and others, who were active in the deliberations so we did not become victimized because of our open records from other states who were our competitors for potential economic development projects," Deal said.

The governor and other state officials worried the bill would have allowed other states to use Georgia's sunshine laws to learn what Georgia was offering to companies looking to locate in the state. It would have, he said, allowed them "to find out in advance exactly what we were doing and then going out and trumping our offer."

Under the new law, state incentives being offered to projects that cost more than $25 million or hire more than 50 employees will remain secret until a company commits to the development or abandons negotiations. When a company commits to a project, the Georgia Department of Economic Development will now publish the incentives on its website. If the project is abandoned, the incentive package can be obtained under the Open Records Act, upon request.

Attorney General Sam Olens spearheaded the sunshine law overhaul and made it a top legislative priority. For months prior to the bill’s passage, Olens held meetings with key stakeholders, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, governmental associations and the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

“Overall, the new open government bill is a net gain for Georgians,” said the foundation’s director, Hollie Manheimer. She applauded changes such as those that increase penalties, clarify responsibilities for public agencies and cut costs for copies.

“However … the bill includes some compromises and does not include everything we want,” she said. “We look forward to increased use by the attorney general of his additional enforcement powers, and are eager to see more transparency in Georgia.”

Olens said the legislation “advances good government policy by ensuring citizens’ access to government, while recognizing the need for government to operate efficiently and protecting the confidentiality of sensitive information. ... Moreover, it provides my office the tools needed to properly enforce the law.”

In his 22-minute speech Tuesday, Deal touched on a variety of topics, from education, to tax reform and the upcoming vote on regional transportation tax referendums.

Welfare drug-testing law

After Gov. Nathan Deal's speech Tuesday to the Atlanta Press Club, he spoke to reporters about legislation he recently signed into law that would require drug tests for parents who apply for the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

A similar law adopted in Florida is being challenged in court. Deal said he believes Georgia lawmakers addressed concerns raised in the Florida case, and he hopes to avoid litigation here.

But opponents argue that drug testing of welfare recipients violates the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches. Supporters believe it will save the state money and promote personal responsibility.

Groups opposing the law "haven’t filed suit yet," Deal said. "What I’m saying is it may be that the Florida challenge that is ongoing might [preclude] us having to be a defendant in a lawsuit. That’s possible. That would be preferable."

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