This week, Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed legislation exempting itself from the state’s public records law and authorising the destruction of all emails sent or received by legislators and their staffs after 90 days.
The new rules adopted by both Republican-led chambers effectively shield members and their staff from public records requests, making any potential wrongdoing far more difficult to investigate.
Both chambers benefit from exemptions from public records laws and the ability to destroy emails after 90 days. The state House, on the other hand, has adopted new rules that allow its members and staff to immediately delete all texts sent and received, as well as calendars and “communications on online platforms.” The new Senate rules exempt official government business texts from public records laws if they are sent or received on nongovernment devices.
The state’s public records law requires “all officers and public bodies” officials to keep records and correspondence “reasonably necessary or appropriate to maintain an accurate knowledge of their official activities and any of their activities that are supported by monies from this state” indefinitely, and to comply with public records requests promptly after they are submitted, with some exceptions.
Democrats and government watchdog groups have slammed the new rules as an abuse of power, while Republicans who voted for them say they are intended to protect legislators’ privacy.
Other rule changes adopted by the Republican majority in the state House this week include new time limits for debating proposed legislation — capping such discussions at 30 minutes — a move state House Democrats said eliminated one of the minority party’s few tools for scrutinising or delaying bills pushed by the majority.
Republicans were able to avoid the need for Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs’ signature because the changes were adopted through rule changes rather than legislation. All of the rule changes were approved along party lines in both chambers.
Government watchdog groups slammed the public records exemptions, claiming that if they had been in place two years earlier, such measures would have likely thwarted efforts to reveal the full extent to which former President Donald Trump’s allies attempted to overturn the outcome of the state’s 2020 election.
“This rule change only benefits lawmakers who want to keep the truth from the people they serve,” American Oversight executive director Heather Sawyer said.
“If this destruction rule had been in place in 2021 or 2022, the public would not have learned the entire truth about Maricopa County’s partisan ‘audit,'” she added.
American Oversight and media outlets such as The Washington Post used Arizona public records law to obtain correspondence between GOP lawmakers and other Republicans, including Ginni Thomas, the wife of conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, that helped reveal efforts to overturn the state’s 2020 election.
The new rules were also criticised by Democrats in the state.
“Saying the law does not apply to us is a terrible message to send to the public,” Arizona House Minority Leader Andres Cano said in a floor speech on Tuesday.
“Arizonans want an open and transparent government. This is not the case. “Unfortunately, these rule changes continue the pattern of disrespect, obstruction, and dysfunction that we have seen since we gaveled in,” he added.
In a statement to NBC News, Attorney General Kris Mayes said she had “deep concerns” about the new rules and would “review any retention policies” put in place by her Republican predecessor.
It is not uncommon for legislatures to be able to shield themselves from public records laws. Wisconsin state legislators have benefited from such a loophole since 1982, when the state’s open records laws created an exemption specifically for them.
According to MuckRock, Minnesota, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Massachusetts have laws in place that effectively exempt state legislators from public records requests, though it remains extremely common for legislators in states where such exemptions do not explicitly exist to avoid complying with public records laws.