Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature approved a measure this week exempting itself from the state’s public records law and authorizing the destruction of all emails sent or received by legislators and their staffs after 90 days.
The new rules adopted by both GOP-led chambers effectively shield members and their staff from public records requests, making investigations into any potential wrongdoing far more difficult.
The exemptions from public records laws and the ability to destroy emails after 90 days apply to both chambers. The state House, however, also adopted new rules allowing its members and their staff to immediately delete all texts sent and received, as well as calendars and “communications on online platforms.” The new Senate rules shields texts related to official government business from public records laws if they have been sent or received on nongovernment devices.
The state’s public records law requires that “all officers and public bodies” officials retain records and correspondences “reasonably necessary or appropriate to maintain an accurate knowledge of their official activities and of any of their activities that are supported by monies from this state” indefinitely and to comply, with some exceptions, with public records requests promptly after they are submitted.
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Democrats and government watchdog groups slammed the new rules as an abuse of power, while the Republicans who voted for the changes say they aim to protect the legislators' privacy.
Other rule changes adopted by the Republican majority in the state House this week include new limits to debating proposed legislation — capping such discussions at just 30 minutes — a move state House Democrats said eliminated one of the few tools the minority party possesses to examine or delay bills the majority is pushing.
Because the chambers adopted the changes via rule changes, not legislation, Republicans were able to bypass the need for Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs' signature for them to go into effect. All of the rule changes were adopted in both chambers along party lines.
Government watchdog groups blasted the public records exemptions, pointing out that such measures, had they been in place two years earlier, would have likely quashed efforts to reveal the full extent to which allies of former President Donald Trump attempted to overturn the result of the 2020 election in the state.
“This rule change only benefits lawmakers who want to hide the truth from the people they serve,” said Heather Sawyer, the executive director at American Oversight.
“If this destruction rule had been in place in 2021 or 2022, the public would not have learned the whole truth about the partisan ‘audit’ of Maricopa County,” she added.
American Oversight and media outlets, including The Washington Post, used Arizona public records law to obtain correspondence among GOP lawmakers and other Republicans — including Ginni Thomas, the wife of conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — that helped reveal efforts to overturn the 2020 election in the state.
Democrats in the state also criticized the new rules.
“Saying the law doesn’t apply to us is a terrible message to send to the public,” Arizona House Minority Leader Andres Cano said in a speech from the chamber’s floor on Tuesday.
“Arizonans want a government that’s open and transparent. This is not it. Sadly, these rule changes are a continued pattern of disrespect, obstruction and dysfunction we have experienced since we gaveled in,” he added.
Attorney General Kris Mayes said in a statement to NBC News that she had “deep concerns” over the new rules and would be “reviewing any retention policies” put in place by her Republican predecessor.
Legislatures having the ability to shield themselves from public records laws is not unheard of. State legislators in Wisconsin have enjoyed the benefits of such a loophole since 1982, when the state’s open records laws created an exemption specifically for them.
Minnesota, Iowa, Oklahoma and Massachusetts also have laws in place effectively exempting state legislators from public records requests, according to record request nonprofit MuckRock, though it remains exceedingly common for legislators in states where such exemptions don't explicitly exist to avoid complying with public records laws.