Nathan Deal signs law allowing college athletics spending to become 90-day secret

New Georgia football coach Kirby Smart is greeted by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle at the state capitol on Tuesday. Smart was introduced and spoke briefly to state legislators.

Georgia’s public college athletic associations now have far more time to respond to open records requests under legislation signed into law Monday by Gov. Nathan Deal, despite an uproar from First Amendment advocates.

The legislation, Senate Bill 323, allows the athletic departments at UGA, Georgia Tech and other state colleges to wait 90 days before responding to Open Records Act requests. Athletic associations, like all state agencies, previously had three days to acknowledge the requests.

Deal’s office did not immediately comment on his decision to sign the legislation.

Lawmakers approved the measure after a visit by new Georgia football coach Kirby Smart, who said he was asked about it during his March sojourn to the statehouse. It soon was tacked on to an unrelated measure and was swiftly passed after midnight on the second-to-last day of the legislative session.

Public records advocates encouraged Deal to veto the measure. Hollie Manheimer of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation called it an “affront” to Georgia’s public records laws. And David Cuillier, a University of Arizona professor who is an expert on Freedom of Information laws, said his “jaw dropped to the floor” when he saw the language.

There was little doubt that Deal would sign it, though. The exemption was added to a separate measure sought by the governor that would allow state agencies to reject records requests involving ongoing economic development projects until the deal is made public.

The legislation, which received the overwhelming support of lawmakers from both parties, would exempt salary information for coaches and executives from the 90-day rule. But it would delay the release of a range of other potentially newsworthy details, including capital projects such as new facilities and recruiting spending.

Public record laws in most other Southern states don’t give college athletic departments any time extension for responding to records requests, according to the Student Press Law Center, though several allow for an open-ended “reasonable” time to answer a request.

Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said the legislation “helps us tremendously,” though he said the school had nothing to do with proposing it. He told the AJC that the university has received roughly 100 records requests in the first three months of the year, which can overwhelm his staff.

“It gives us time to do our job as far as what we normally do as well as address all the issues of FOIA,” said McGarity.

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