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North Carolina Republicans create "secret police force"
North Carolina’s new $30 billion state budget contains a provision that gives extraordinary investigative powers to a partisan oversight committee co-chaired by Senate Leader Phil Berger (R) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R).
The Joint Legislative Committee on Government Operations — or Gov Ops for short — is empowered to seize “any document or system of record” from anyone who works in or with state and local government during its investigations. The rule applies to contractors, subcontractors, and any other non-state entity “receiving, directly and indirectly, public funds,” including charities and state universities.
Moreover, Gov Ops staff will be authorized to enter “any building or facility” owned or leased by a state or non-state entity without a judicial warrant. This includes the private residences of subcontractors and contractors who run businesses out of their homes, lawmakers say.
Alarmingly, public employees under investigation will be required to keep all communication and requests “confidential.” They cannot alert their supervisor of the investigation nor consult with legal counsel. Violating this rule “shall be grounds for disciplinary action, including dismissal,” the law reads. Those who refuse to cooperate face jail time and fines of up to $1,000. In the event that Gov Ops searches a person’s home, these rules mean that the person 1) must keep the entry a secret, 2) cannot seek outside help (unless necessary for fulfilling the request, the law says), and 3) could face criminal charges if Gov Ops deems them uncooperative.
Moore and Berger claim these new rules are benign and necessary to exercise oversight of state funds. But Democrats and other critics say the changes turn Gov Ops into a “secret police force,” warning that the new policies have far-reaching implications.
During a legislative debate, State Senator Graig Meyer (D) asked lawmakers to consider a hypothetical scenario in which Gov Ops accesses personal health records like ultrasounds, which are required by the state to receive abortion pills. The Commission, Meyer said, could release these documents “to the public in a hearing.”
Gov Ops could also potentially enter and search “a law firm that receives state funding for court-appointed lawyers,” compromising “the sanctity of the attorney-client privilege,” State Representative Allison Dahle (D) said. Dahle added that these new powers will allow Gov Ops members to carry out grudges, empowering them to target political enemies as “backlash for previous actions.”
“I don’t think I have ever publicly called the GOP leadership ‘authoritarian’ because that’s not a term I take lightly, but their approach to seizing power and cover up their tracks now fits the bill,” Meyer told Popular Information. “The hypotheticals of how Gov Ops power could be abused are endless. Verbal assurances of restraint are inadequate; we need clear guardrails in law.” Meyer added that he “hope[s] that members of both parties can see what's happening before it's too late."
The legislature created the Gov Ops committee years ago to increase ”governmental accountability by ensuring that governmental institutions operate efficiently, effectively, and in compliance with the law.” But unlike other types of government watchdog groups, GovOps is partisan. Republicans dominate the body, and the group’s politics greatly influence the types of investigations it carries out. For example, Gov Ops launched an inquiry into diversity training programs at the University of North Carolina earlier this year.
This wasn’t always the norm in North Carolina – the state used to have a nonpartisan division “tasked with evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of public services.” Known as the Program Evaluation Division (PED), the unit was created in 2007 after receiving unanimous approval from state lawmakers. PED was “said to have saved the state millions,” the News & Observer reported. But, in 2021, Moore and Berger shuttered the unit. A spokesperson for Berger at the time noted that Gov Ops had a “similar mandate” to PED.
Keeping public records secret
The Republican leaders who pushed to dramatically expand Gov Ops' power say it will enhance government accountability. The same leaders, however, pushed through several provisions in the budget that restrict access to legislative public records, eliminating a critical tool for accountability — including for Gov Ops itself.
One provision repeals a law that required “communications regarding redistricting” be made publicly available when new legislative maps were adopted. As one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation, public records have been instrumental in challenging North Carolina’s redistricting maps. In 2022, a gerrymandering trial exposed a top Republican redistricting official for using “secret maps to help draft the state’s redistricting plan.”
This fall, Republican lawmakers are set to redraw voting maps after the new conservative majority on the state’s Supreme Court overturned a ruling and legalized partisan gerrymandering. Under the new budget, "lawmakers responding to public records requests will have no obligation to share any drafts or materials that guided their redistricting decisions."
Another provision allows North Carolina lawmakers to exempt themselves from public records requests. Current and former legislators, the law says, ”shall not be required to reveal or to consent to reveal any document, supporting document, drafting request, or information request made or received by that legislator while a legislator.” Under the state’s previous law, legislators were recognized as the custodians of their own records, but had to file a “specific exemption” to withhold records.
A third provision will allow legislators to “determine…whether a record is a public record.” Legislators can now decide to “retain, destroy, sell, loan, or otherwise dispose of'' their documents.
Moore claims that the change to public records requests seeks to “clarify the ambiguity in current statute and broadens the purview of what constitutes a public record, increasing transparency and efficiency in responsiveness from legislators.” Meanwhile, Berger alleges the provision was needed to “settle a dispute between the legislative services office and the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, which archives public records.” But the Department, through a spokesperson, said it was “not aware of any dispute,” the News & Observer reported. “This new provision appears to be the legislature entirely exempting themselves from the public records law and the archiving process that has retained government records throughout the state’s history,” the spokesperson told the local outlet.
Opponents say that these new rules will make it harder to uncover corruption and create accountability. In a letter to Berger and Moore, the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters expressed concerns that the changes will “permit the General Assembly to operate in secrecy, shielded from public view and accountability to those whom the members of the Assembly were elected to serve.” The North Carolina Press Association also objected to the new privileges, calling them a “significant threat to the public’s right to see public record.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated with the correct total dollar amount of the North Carolina budget; it is $30 billion, not $300 billion.