Secrecy in state government could be reduced soon — if the Legislature will carry through with its plans to ensure a reasonable level of transparency for the Governor’s Office.
The next Governor’s Office, at least.
Under a Senate-passed bill now before the House, future governors’ ability to shield records from the public would be limited.
Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, rolls back a 2009 change championed by Gov. Bobby Jindal that introduced the notion of shielding from public access records that are part of a governor’s “deliberative process.”
One does not have to be cynical to see where that exemption, borrowed from federal law, would be too flexible for Louisiana politics. The governor sold his “transparency” package as a matter of open government, and it turned out to have the opposite effect.
Some legislators and media organizations, as well as the Public Affairs Research Council, say a “deliberative process” provision has been particularly abused to hide documents. Senate Bill 190 would keep the governor’s communications with his internal staff exempt from disclosure. But no longer would agencies outside the Governor’s Office be able to shield records claiming they are part of the governor’s “deliberative process.” We see no need for special “executive privilege” exemptions from public records laws for governors. Mayors and parish presidents have been able to effectively lead without such exemptions, and governors should be able to do so, too. Claitor’s bill doesn’t eliminate such exemptions entirely, but it’s a step in the right direction.
Claitor’s legislation also would remove an exemption that gives executive branch agencies a six-month blackout period on budget documents. In addition, the governor’s travel records would be accessible within seven days.
The changes would not go into effect until noon on Jan. 11, 2016, when a new governor takes office.
“Obviously, what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander in this case,” said state Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-New Orleans, of the bill. Claitor agrees, but he does not want a vindictive parting veto from Jindal on this issue.
The challenges to transparency were documented in a House committee by the Louisiana Press Association, but it’s important to remember that this involves not a press privilege but a fundamental right of citizens. “The public has a right to know,” said Carl Redman, former executive editor of The Advocate.
This is not a matter of reportorial access but of public access. The Jindal exception has warped out of shape the broad openness of government that is fundamental to democracy.
The ancient Israelites were told to make bricks without straw. Citizens would as likely be able to make responsible contributions to public policy if left without access to the documents that government officials use to make their decisions.