(The Center Square) – The New Hampshire House of Representatives has passed a bill allowing the state to charge up to $25 an hour for certain public records requests.
The requests, known as “right-to-know requests” in New Hampshire, allow private individuals to obtain records, including documents, emails and text messages from public officials and agencies.
The current law allows the government to charge for requests if they involve copying records but not for anything else. If the bill becomes law, the government could charge for any request that takes more than 10 hours to fulfill.
Another change the bill would make is allowing the government to suggest “a reasonable modification of the scope of the request” to make the process more efficient.
The bill passed 193-179, but it will go again before the House for reconsideration on Feb. 8. The legislation would have to go through the Senate before Gov. Chris Sununu could sign it into law.
Supporters of the legislation say the passage could discourage requests that demand hundreds of pages and take up public officials’ time.
In November, Katelyn Kuttab, R-Windham, one of the sponsors for the bill, gave an example of an out-of-state solar panel company requesting building permits from decades back. “They don’t live here,” Kuttab said at the time, “They want to sell solar panels and our taxpayers are paying.”
“My goal is anyone who needs information should absolutely be able to get the information,” she said. “However, what I want to try to deter from is the open-ended fishing expeditions.”
Still, the legislation has plenty of critics.
When the bill was first proposed earlier this year, the New England First Amendment Coalition, a non-profit First Amendment advocacy group, called on lawmakers to reject it, saying it would be a “monumental step in the wrong direction.”
Some critics see the potential for abuse if the bill becomes law. A former reporter for over thirty years, Mark Hayward, commented in an opinion piece that he could “imagine what will happen when the prospect for revenue generation enters.”
“Every document, every line of data will have to be reviewed, probably twice,” he wrote. “Accountants and lawyers will get involved. Newspapers will have to pay twice for redactions – then the bureaucrat blacks it out, and then for a lawyer to fight it in court. And the public will know less. That’s bad for New Hampshire, bad for democracy.”
Andrew Cline, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a free market think tank in New Hampshire, also questioned whether the bill would incentivize bad faith on the part of public agencies. “The perverse incentive created by HB 1002 is obvious,” he wrote. “If it becomes law, public officials would have a new incentive to take as much time as possible to answer public records requests.”
“The core conceptual flaw” of the proposal “is that it treats public records as government property and access to those records as a burden on government employees,” he said.