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PAR says public records bill would stifle open government

Two bills introduced this session, which would have opened most of the governor’s records to the public, are all but dead due to strong opposition from the administration. Instead, the administration supports SB 278, which purports to move Louisiana forward in executive branch transparency but would actually deliver a devastating blow to open government. SB 278 should be rejected. The amended bill was passed out of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday.

Louisiana law currently protects from public view all records (except financial) within the office of the governor. SB 278, as amended, would narrow current law to a degree, but would also create new problems. Records within the governor’s office, which relate to the governor’s security and schedule, intra-office communications of key staffers and the deliberative process, still would be restricted from public view. Questions remain as to which specific documents would be protected under the new exception.

The larger problem with the bill is that it would guard an entirely new category of records that currently is open to the public. SB 278 would add a six-month window of protection for records that reflect “pre-decisional advice and recommendations to the governor concerning budgeting.” This protection would extend to any agency or department headed by an unclassified gubernatorial appointee.

Many records that are now public would be shielded, stifling debate on major decisions that will be made in the near future as the state aims to streamline services and cut spending. The broad category of records that would be kept secret includes reports and analyses that help officials determine the effectiveness of programs and the feasibility of major changes.

For example, if the Department of Health and Hospitals evaluated for the governor the cost-savings potential of closing hospitals or the Department of Education studied the efficiencies to be gained by reducing pre-K funding, the resulting documents could be kept confidential for six months, which would be just about the right amount of time for a controversial issue to make its way from a study commission to the Legislature for quick approval. This new language all but ensures that taxpayers would have no chance to influence or understand proposed changes to how their dollars would be spent prior to budget decisions being made.

While a limited records exception for the governor may be in order, it should be crafted narrowly to ensure maximum access while protecting only the most sensitive documents. Under no circumstances should voters be excluded from the process of managing their tax dollars. Unfortunately, SB 278 raises more questions than it answers and protects more than it unveils.

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