Government transparency, like motherhood and apple pie, is something every political candidate professes to love, though politicians tend to lose their enthusiasm for openness once they’re elected. Gov. Bobby Jindal championed the idea of transparency when he ran for the state’s highest office, but since then, he’s successfully supported changes to the state’s public records law that have placed more, rather than fewer, records out of public view. President Barack Obama ran for the White House on a pro-transparency platform, too, but various government watchdog groups have described Obama’s administration as one of the most secretive in history.
These kinds of flip-flops when it comes to government transparency are clearly a bipartisan affair, and for an obvious reason. Transparency is difficult for elected leaders. It involves citizens as partners, not afterthoughts, in the political process, requiring officials to be more accountable for their decisions — and more diligent in explaining how public policy is made. That’s simply what happens when voters have a clear idea of how their government is working — or not working — and it’s not very convenient for the people we elect to guide the government on our behalf.
But openness is critical in building public confidence in the important work that government does. That’s why we’re heartened by the release of a new report by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, or PAR, that could help advance greater transparency in Louisiana government.
PAR, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that studies state issues, is urging Louisiana’s next governor to embrace a narrower application of the deliberative process privilege, a provision of state law pushed by Jindal that allows the governor to shield from scrutiny records he uses in making administrative decisions. As now enshrined in Louisiana statutes, the concept of deliberative process is so vague that Jindal has used it to keep a vast array of documents away from public view. Presumably, any future governor could do the same. PAR also is urging leaders to repeal or shortly curtail a provision in the public records law that puts agency budget recommendations to the governor out of view for six months — a measure that mothballs this information until big decisions about spending millions of taxpayer dollars have long since been made. We see no need for these broad exemptions in the state’s public records law for documents used by the Governor’s Office. Other chief executives in Louisiana government, such as mayors and parish presidents, have been able to lead effectively without deliberative process and budget-related exemptions. Governors should also be able to lead without such secrecy.
PAR released its report during its recent annual conference, which also included a panel discussion featuring gubernatorial candidates Scott Angelle, David Vitter, Jay Dardenne and John Bel Edwards. The candidates agreed that Jindal has been too secretive and pledged that their administrations would be more open, promising a range of reforms, including executive orders and new legislation, to make state government more transparent.
PAR did a good thing in getting the gubernatorial candidates on the record regarding transparency, but there’s no need to wait until the next governor to advance reform. State Sen. Dan Claitor, a Baton Rouge Republican, is sponsoring SB 190 this legislative session, a bill that seeks to implement many of the changes PAR and the gubernatorial candidates have publicly supported. As currently crafted, Claitor’s bill would essentially eliminate most of the special exemptions in public records law for a governor.
If the candidates are truly serious about transparency, they should ask to testify on behalf of Claitor’s bill, then do what they can to support its passage.