Political Horizons: Claitor tries to end last-minute chaos _lowres

Senator Dan Claitor

The Louisiana Senate will consider whether to restrict the broad public records exemptions granted to the Governor’s Office, after claims a 6-year-old rewrite of the law has been abused to hide documents that should have been released publicly.

Without objection Wednesday, the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee backed Senate Bill 190 by state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, to add significant limits to a governor’s ability to shield records from the public.

In hopes of avoiding a possible veto from Gov. Bobby Jindal, senators reworked the bill so it wouldn’t take effect until a new governor, to be elected this fall, takes office Jan. 11.

The proposal headed to the Senate floor would keep the governor’s communications with his internal staff exempt from disclosure. But it would get rid of several exemptions introduced into public records law in a 2009 revamp backed by Jindal.

Claitor’s bill would remove an exemption that gives executive branch departments a six-month blackout period on budget documents. It also would do away with language that hides records considered part of a governor’s “deliberative process.” Agencies outside of Jindal’s office have claimed that exemption, even though it’s not granted to them in law.

The Jindal administration has described the deliberative process exemption as a way to protect the free flow of ideas and discussions that help the governor make decisions. But the language has been more broadly interpreted than lawmakers say they intended.

“If deliberative process had been used like most people thought it would be used, we probably wouldn’t be here today,” said Committee Chairman Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales.

Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, which pushes for more open access to government, said state agencies, higher education leaders and local government officials have improperly tried to claim the exemption.

“It’s been written too broadly, and in fact, the governor and the governor’s counsel have gone to other agencies and asked them to use the deliberative process privilege,” Scott said in his testimony supporting Claitor’s bill.

State Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, supported the bill but worried it could go too far in stemming creativity and the ability to vet proposals.

Scott said a governor would have the right to claim executive privilege and use the exemption granted to him and his internal staff.

“I think a lot of what you’re suggesting is protected,” he told Donahue.

But even those internal communications and exempted records would have to be retained for the state archives, and they would be available for review eight years after their creation, under Claitor’s proposal.

The governor’s schedule would be protected for up to seven days after the event, to address security concerns.

The four major candidates vying to be Louisiana’s next governor have said they back efforts to curtail the governor’s public records exemptions.

One candidate, Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, testified during the Senate committee Wednesday in favor of Claitor’s bill.