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Those words, made famous several generations ago in the Broadway musical Hair, celebrated the 1960s’ take on openness, light, sharing, and other virtues of the era.

Today, even politicians still like to talk about sunshine, governmental transparency, and giving citizens access to and voices in public business.

North Carolina General Assembly members, for example, are happy to let citizens know what laws took effect this month, particularly criminal statutes regarding rioting and civil disorder (just in case anyone was considering such activities), banning the manufacture, possession, and distribution of fake pills (the law excludes pharmacists), and protecting critical infrastructure after someone shot up a Moore County electric substation late last year.

Some of this is simply letting citizens know such feel-good laws have taken effect, and some of it playing to partisan political constituencies.

Increasingly, though, transparency is not the goal. In fact, the goal is becoming the exact opposite, to withhold information from the public. In other words, elected legislators are big on talking the sunshine talk but less enthusiastic about walking the transparency walk.

States throughout the country are making it more difficult for citizens to access various public records that have been available through various Freedom of Information Acts. Sometimes officials complain they are overwhelmed by various record requests. Sometimes they say staff is unavailable or that providing information to the public can be expensive.

What they do not say is that releasing certain documents can be embarrassing, even damaging to them and their careers. A prime example of this is US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ acceptance of fancy trips and a tricked-out RV from a right-wing donor in Texas, gifts he ultimately had to own up to himself.

North Carolina legislators clearly have some information they hope to keep to themselves.

Tucked, some would say hidden, deep in the 2023-2024 budget bill finally approved nearly three months late, is a provision having nothing to do with funding state government.

It is a provision allowing legislators to exempt General Assembly records from public release, removing any semblance of sunshine. Legislators can now decide which documents are released, kept,
destroyed, or even sold.

I am not the only North Carolinian who finds this hidden provision alarming. North Carolina State Treasurer and former legislator himself, Republican Dale Folwell, told NC Newsline that “allowing individual lawmakers to determine what records are public and what material can be destroyed without ever seeing the sunshine of public view creates a system that does not have standards or accountability.

It prevents the public from learning who and what influence certain decision-making on their behalf.” Brooks Fuller, executive director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, agrees.

“It’s a massive change. It undermines the public access to any document that touches the hands of an individual legislator.”

It is important to remember that the words “public access” refer to any member of the public—a journalist, Up & Coming Weekly, you, and me. Even if we decide we want a legislative document, we no longer have a right to it if a legislator says “no.”

Does this sound like an open and representative government to you?

To me it sounds like one more step on the road to opaque and authoritarian government and one more reason to be very, very careful who we vote for in 2024.

What we do not—or cannot—know can indeed hurt us and our families.

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