Mar 14, 2024 - Politics

Georgia transparency law exempts General Assembly

Illustration of an unlocked padlock made out of a manila folder.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

The General Assembly streams committee meetings and invites visitors to view sessions from the gallery. But that's about the point where the transparency under the Gold Dome ends.

Why it matters: Georgia's Open Records Act requires state and local governments to disclose public documents. But the General Assembly exempted itself from the law.

  • So you can access the governor's text messages and view your council member's office account spending. But you can't read an email between a legislator and a lobbyist.

Zoom out: Government is a game where the players — in this case, state lawmakers — get to make the rules. Minnesota also exempts itself from the state's transparency law, and others have created similar rules.

  • Congress has also exempted itself from the Freedom of Information Act.

Pro tip: The state's Open Georgia tool allows you to search legislative payrolls. In addition, communications between state lawmakers and entities that aren't exempt — like a state senator and county official — can be released.

What they're saying: That exemption is "troubling," said Nora Benavidez, the senior counsel and director of digital justice and civil rights at Free Press. "If you are not in a room in a committee hearing, if you do not see firsthand or know someone who knows various dynamics with the way the legislature conducts itself, it's very hard to understand why things occur.

  • "What is the impetus for various bills that get introduced? Or [the bills] that do not move? Or the way that bills do move? And the interests behind legislative priorities remain unknown."

Of note: Georgia's law has dozens of carve-outs for companies' "trade secrets," prison operations, and children's school records. The law also has rules about redacting people's personal identifying information in released documents.

The other side: A spokesperson for House Speaker Jon Burns (R-Newington) told Axios that representatives receive "highly personal and private information from constituents on a daily basis that needs and deserves to be protected."

  • A spokesperson for President Pro Tem Sen. John Kennedy (R-Macon), who leads the chamber, did not respond to Axios' request for comment.

Yes, but: Cities, counties, the governor's office, and state agencies — government entities that are not exempt from the law — also receive sensitive information from stakeholders.

The bottom line: Georgia's law is one of the most powerful tools to hold the government accountable and understand their actions, Benavidez said.

  • "Without inquiry and transparency, opacity can breed malfeasance, corruption, and distrust from the public … And this entire era is really plagued by distrust."
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