BATON ROUGE — As the state grapples with a $1.6 billion budget shortfall, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s cabinet departments are invoking a six-year-old public records exemption the governor helped put in place to keep more financial documents hidden from public view.
Executive branch agencies are claiming the exemption to hide their working papers of where and how they’d have to slash services and programs to cope with possible cuts in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Jindal backed legislation in 2009 that rewrote the public records exemption for the governor’s office.
The changes opened the possibility of more access to certain records in the governor’s office, which for years had a near-blanket exemption. But the rewrite added a provision that shields for six months any budget documents that provide “pre-decisional advice and recommendations to the governor” for any department headed by a gubernatorial appointee.
The move extended a new exemption across most state agencies that hadn’t previously existed — keeping hidden the financial discussions that help build the governor’s budget recommendations right as lawmakers are deciding how to craft annual spending plans.
A dozen of Jindal’s cabinet agencies claimed the six-month exemption in response to public records requests from The Associated Press seeking budget spreadsheets, emails or other documents concerning the ongoing talks about proposed cuts in the 2015-16 budget.
“Our department has identified records which are responsive to your request,” James Devitt, deputy general counsel for the Department of Natural Resources, wrote in response to AP. Then, he added: “However, these records are currently subject to a temporary privilege.”
Similar responses came from the health, corrections, public safety, economic development, juvenile justice, environmental quality, wildlife and fisheries, social services and labor departments.
A paralegal for the Department of Transportation and Development said the agency didn’t have any documents that matched the AP request, despite months of ongoing negotiations between the governor’s budget-crafting agency and every state department.
But the DOTD official, Claressa Johnson, added that if any such documents did exist, “they would be subject to the exemption.”
The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness provided one document, the memo outlining guidelines about how to prepare a budget request, then claimed the exemption for the rest.
“I can understand having some delay because you don’t want to be the governor waking up in the morning and reading about your budget in the newspaper before you even have a chance to see it yourself,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, which pushes for more open access to government.
“But six months is just a way of sort of covering up the most active period of what’s going on,” Scott said.
Only the Department of Veterans Affairs released internal emails, spreadsheets and memos showing its communications with other Jindal administration officials about its budget requests and how it would handle proposed cuts, in response to the AP request.
Jindal’s office said it heard from some departments about the AP’s records requests.
“We advised agencies to consult with their attorneys and respond to the requests in accordance with the law,” Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates Dirmann said in a statement.
Rather than claim the six-month exemption, Louisiana’s revenue department instead cited a “deliberative process privilege” that it doesn’t explicitly have in state law. Asked how it can claim the privilege, the department cited three court cases, none of which involved it directly.
When running for office in 2007, Jindal campaigned on the need for more transparency in a state with a reputation for political corruption. But under his watch, more state agencies have been claiming their records can be kept secret.
Scott said the 2009 public records law rewrite made some positive changes, giving the public access to new records in the governor’s office. But he said lawmakers should shorten the delay on releasing budget records and place limits on use of the deliberative process claim.
In the changes six years ago, the governor was granted an exemption that hides anything considered part of his “deliberative process.” The argument from the Jindal administration was that internal decision-making should be protected to allow the free flow of ideas.
But the language has been more broadly interpreted than what lawmakers say they intended. Records in departments outside the governor’s office have been withheld, and other agencies overseen by Jindal allies have started shielding documents about politically sensitive topics by claiming the privilege and asserting it is established in federal and state case law.