POLITICS

Louisiana lawmakers refuse to expand public records access

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Politics,Associated Press,Louisiana

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Lawmakers on the House ethics committee on Tuesday backed Gov. Bobby Jindal's effort to keep most of his records hidden from public view, rejecting a proposal that would have limited the governor's expansive public records exemption.

The House and Governmental Affairs voted 6-3 against the bill by Rep. Jerome "Dee" Richard, an independent from Thibodaux. Jindal opposed the proposal.

The idea wasn't entirely dead, however, because a Senate panel was scheduled to consider a similar bill later Tuesday.

Under existing law, most of the documents and emails in the governor's office are shielded with a broad exemption that hides anything considered part of the governor's "deliberative process."

The argument is that internal decision-making is protected to allow the free flow of ideas, a suggestion repeated by Jindal's executive counsel, Thomas Enright, in Tuesday's House committee hearing.

Richard and Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Monroe, proposed to strip that deliberative process exemption and shield only internal communication between the governor, his chief of staff and his executive counsel, for a period of up to 10 years. Security records and transportation details could be confidential for up to seven days, under the bill.

"Rep. Richard's bill opens the door for the governor of Louisiana, arguably the most powerful governor in the country, and subjects his records to the same kind of openness that your records are open to, that my mayor's records are open to, that the sheriff's records are open to," Carl Redman, executive editor for The Advocate newspaper, told lawmakers.

When running for office in 2007, Jindal campaigned on improving government transparency in a state with a reputation for backroom political deals and public corruption. Since then, the Republican governor has opposed attempts to open more of his office's records.

Jindal backed legislation in 2009 that rewrote the governor's office public records exemption to assert the deliberative process privilege.

Enright claimed that offered more access than the public had previously, when the governor's office had a blanket exemption to shield documents.

"Before 2009, there was a 100 percent exemption for records of the governor, and now we've cut that down," he said.

But the deliberative process language has been broadly interpreted and instead used to expand what can be kept from public view.

Records in departments outside the governor's office have been withheld, and other agencies overseen by Jindal allies have started shielding documents by claiming the privilege and asserting it is established in federal and state case law.

The legal claim has been used to avoid turning over documents about controversial and politically sensitive topics, including the governor's school voucher program, disagreements over the handling of a controversial tax credit program and budget cuts to the LSU health care system and privatization efforts at university-run hospitals.

Robert Travis Scott, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said agencies are violating the law in claiming deliberative process, and he urged lawmakers to consider some legislation like Richard's bill to work on limiting attempts to assert the exemption.

"If this trend goes unchecked, every bureaucrat in every state agency in government will be marking documents and correspondence as off limits to public access simply because these government employees and not the law have decided to keep the records off limits. I'm telling you committee members, this is a problem," Scott said.

Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, agreed that lawmakers who rewrote the governor's public record exemption never intended the deliberative process claim to be used beyond the governor's office. But he questioned whether Richard's bill went too far, and he voted against the measure.

Richard said the deliberative process claim should be jettisoned entirely.

"I don't see a need for it, it's been abused so bad," he said.

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Online:

House Bill 19 can be found at www.legis.la.gov

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