Attorney General Sam Olens asked the House Civil Judiciary Committee to hold hearings about the proposal after the 40-day legislative session ends after he said he heard from lawmakers who feared the proposal was introduced too late in the session to reach a vote. He said he hoped any issues can be resolved so that lawmakers could vote on the plan early next year.
The measure would increase the criminal fines of meetings and records violations to $1,000, up from a $100 fine for violations of the open records act and a $500 fine for flouting the open meetings law. It also would require officials who close meetings to keep notes that a judge can review in case of a legal challenge.
State Rep. Jay Powell, the Camilla Republican who sponsored the measure, said it is needed so that the law is "readable and understandable by a lay person." But he said lawmakers shouldn't rush through the legislation this late in the session.
Olens has made the legislation a key piece of his legislative agenda, saying it would give government officials more flexibility in how to respond to requests while providing more clarity and transparency for the public and the media.
Aside from stiffer criminal penalties, it would also for the first time call for civil fines of $1,000 for violations of the sunshine laws. And it would allow government agencies to insist on advance payments for records that cost more than $500 to prepare.
The measure's backers also unveiled a new version of the proposal on Thursday that included several tweaks, including a requirement that state offices comply with the open meetings rules. That could require district attorney's offices across the state to hold certain meetings in public.