PAR Says Health Care and Airports Need Sunshine, Too
Two legislative proposals gaining rapid momentum this session could have devastating effects on Louisiana’s public records law. While House Bills 964 and 841 focus on entirely different topics, both have the effect of undermining transparency in government.
In 2002, Louisiana ranked among the top five states in granting citizens access to public records, according to the Better Government Association’s Integrity Index. A PAR survey of legislation passed since 2003 shows that lawmakers have passed roughly 45 laws that have an effect on the scope of public records. Twenty-four of those laws have expanded the realm of what Louisiana citizens are allowed to inspect, while 21 have exempted certain records from the public eye. While attempting to achieve balance between open government and legitimate privacy concerns, transparency must still remain a primary goal for policymakers.
House Bill 964 would shield the work product, proceedings and records of certain nonprofit, health care quality improvement corporations from public review, and even from the discovery process in administrative or civil actions. The protection would apply to nonprofits that would partner with the Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) to improve the quality of health care in Louisiana.
Quasi public-private organizations typically are required to comply with the public records law. With the passage of HB 964, however, a corporation such as the Louisiana Health Care Quality Forum would be given special treatment. The Forum, which is presently requesting more than $1 million of state funding, would have no duty to share its proceedings, findings, research or recommended initiatives with Louisiana citizens. Its healthcare outcome and performance data would be shielded from public view. Moreover, the bill is drafted so broadly that other nonprofits unrelated to the Forum or its work could also be given the same rights to secrecy.
Proponents argue that if the Forum’s data were open to the public, provider groups and other essential players would refuse to participate in the collaborative effort. Opponents counter that health care quality significantly affects the lives of Louisiana citizens, and state “partners” should make their documents available for public inspection.
House Bill 841 similarly would shelter certain records from the public, specifically those of the Louisiana Airport Authority (LAA). The LAA has broad authority and has most recently requested $300 million from the legislature to begin work on developing an international cargo airport near Donaldsonville, potentially the largest economic development project in the history of the state.
HB 841 would hide all records pertaining to site acquisition, operation, planning, design, construction or lease of an airport facility from the public until negotiations for such were complete.
Supporters point to confidentiality concerns to justify the veil of secrecy, arguing that companies might not want to enter negotiations if they knew the process would be a public one. Challengers cite examples to show this fear is unfounded and that secrecy fails to ensure the success of a project. Union Tank Car Company decided to do business in Louisiana regardless of the open procedure used. Conversely, Boeing and ThyssenKrupp both passed on setting up shop in Louisiana despite attempts to guard negotiations from the public. Challengers point to other economic development measures in place, which appropriately protect proprietary information and trade secrets but still give the public some information on what parties are involved.
Passage of either of the above measures with their current privacy provisions will encourage further deterioration of citizen access to government. Conceivably, other nonprofit corporations in quasi-public roles will seek the same privacy shelters from policymakers. Other airports or port authorities will expect the same treatment given to the LAA to avoid being at a competitive disadvantage.
Lawmakers cannot allow the fear of what might, or might never, be to override the public’s fundamental right to monitor the inner workings of government. Without clear, convincing grounds for privacy, transparency must be maintained.