Capitol Views: Public records bills flood Capitol committees

Lawmakers scheduled eight bills for House and Senate committee hearings today that are related to public records and public meetings. Good government advocates and lobbyists for the working press can be found on both sides of the policy proposals, but they collectively represent a much larger trend playing out at the Capitol.

“The number of bills is incredibly concerning,” said Scott Sternberg, general counsel to the Louisiana Press Association and a First Amendment attorney.

There are at least 12 instruments filed for the session that directly target so-called sunshine laws—and lawmakers can still request an additional five bills each be filed in their names before April 2.

Why the sudden surge? It’s a question Capitol observers are having a difficult time answering. Some of the bills are coming from the municipal level, sparked by officials who claim to be drowning in public records requests. Other proposals are the result of media coverage around the state, like stories pertaining to high-profile economic development deals and the recent wave of sexual harassment lawsuits.

As part of the ongoing discussions about Louisiana’s ailing budget, and the need for either higher taxes or cuts or both, transparency is being couched as an anecdote. Statements such as this are being asked at the Capitol on a regular basis: “How can we cut government if we’re not allowed to see all of the government’s expenditures and operations?”

Where the trend goes from here is another question worth pondering. Some lawmakers are privately discussing the idea of a resolution that would charge the Louisiana State Law Institute with studying public records laws and making recommendations for potential changes. The age of the statutes involved is enough of an argument for some—after all, the Louisiana Public Records Act was originally enacted in 1940 and some provisions, particularly those related to technology, like cell phone text messages, are growing outdated, according to good government advocates.

The House and Governmental Affairs Committee heard four bills this morning, of which two were spiked. House Bill 255 by Rep. Reid Falconer, R-Mandeville, which would have provided for a public records exception for certain records of the State Board of Architectural Examiners, was voted down. House Bill 297 by Rep. Stuart Bishop, R-Lafayette, which involved how local government advertise certain tax changes, was voluntarily deferred.

Passed by the committee, despite opposition from the Louisiana Press Association, was House Bill 270 by Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, which exempts specified personal identifying information from reports of violations of student codes of conduct. House Bill 123 by Rep. Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, was also advanced to the full House following amendments. It details how a public records requestor can be sued by a public body or official.
The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, meanwhile, had another five bills with similar subject matter on its agenda for this afternoon. The meeting got underway shortly before today’s deadline.

Jeremy Alford will publish a daily update throughout the legislative special session on Daily Report PM. Alford reports on Louisiana politics at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.

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