It’s the hallmark of a Louisiana governor’s campaign: Promise transparency and openness in a state with a well-earned reputation for shady dealings.
Gov. Bobby Jindal pledged transparency when he ran for office eight years ago. Instead, his administration has set up new roadblocks to getting certain information and helped ensure more documents remained secret.
Last month, the Governor’s Office refused to release any of Jindal’s emails from his two terms in response to public records requests, saying the messages are either protected from disclosure under state law or personal in nature.
Lawmakers seem like they may be willing to add a little more sunshine to the Governor’s Office — and the time between the end of Jindal’s term and the start of his successor’s tenure may just be the right moment to get changes made.
Jindal could even use the issue to annoy the next guy, since he doesn’t have the best of relationships with several of the candidates running to follow him into office.
Plus, each of the four major gubernatorial candidates are vowing to push for scaled-back public records exemptions if they win this fall’s election. Jindal could make sure they don’t have a choice.
Under a bill that won unanimous Senate passage last week, the governor’s ability to keep documents in his office hidden from the public would be much more limited. But in a perfect scenario for Jindal, the proposal by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, wouldn’t impact him.
Instead, the changes — to be considered next by lawmakers in the House — would begin when a new governor takes office Jan. 11.
Claitor’s bill would keep the governor’s communications with internal staff exempt from disclosure, though they would have to be retained for the state archives and would be available for review eight years after their creation.
But the proposal would get rid of several exemptions introduced into public records law in a 2009 revamp backed by Jindal. Claitor said that rewrite “went down the wrong path.”
An exemption that gives executive branch departments a six-month blackout period on budget documents would be removed. Also jettisoned would be language that hides records considered part of a governor’s “deliberative process.”
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. Agencies outside of Jindal’s office have claimed that exemption, even though it’s not granted to them in law.
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.
“If deliberative process had been used like most people thought it would be used, we probably wouldn’t be here today,” Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Jody Amedee, R-Gonzales, said when his committee backed Claitor’s bill.
The four major candidates vying to be Louisiana’s next governor — Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, state Rep. John Bel Edwards and U.S. Sen. David Vitter — said the deliberative process exemption should be curbed.
At a recent PAR forum, Dardenne, Edwards and Vitter said the exemption has been abused. Vitter said he’d issue an executive order curtailing it on his first day in office. Each candidate said he’d seek legislative restrictions on deliberative process.
Jindal said he’s “followed the laws of Louisiana” while in office.
If the House passes Claitor’s bill, Jindal could give the gubernatorial candidates the restrictions they say they’ll seek. And he could provide the state with more of the transparency he pledged on the 2007 campaign trail — even if it’s just for the next governor.
But whether Jindal will sign the bill if it reaches his desk remains unclear. Asked for the governor’s position on Claitor’s transparency proposal and Jindal spokesman Mike Reed only responded: “We’re reviewing the bill.”
Melinda Deslatte covers the Louisiana Capitol for The Associated Press.