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Legislative Roundup: Lawmakers refuse to expand public records access

Last Modified: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 5:21 PM

BATON ROUGE (AP) — Lawmakers on the House ethics committee on Tuesday backed Gov. Bobby Jindal's effort to keep most of his records hidden from public view, rejecting a proposal that would have limited the governor's expansive public records exemption.

The House and Governmental Affairs voted 6-3 against the bill by Rep. Jerome "Dee" Richard, an independent from Thibodaux. Jindal opposed the proposal.

The idea wasn't entirely dead, however, because a Senate panel was scheduled to consider a similar bill later Tuesday.

Under existing law, most of the documents and emails in the governor's office are shielded with a broad exemption that hides anything considered part of the governor's "deliberative process."

The argument is that internal decision-making is protected to allow the free flow of ideas, a suggestion repeated by Jindal's executive counsel, Thomas Enright, in Tuesday's House committee hearing.

Richard and Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Monroe, proposed to strip that deliberative process exemption and shield only internal communication between the governor, his chief of staff and his executive counsel, for a period of up to 10 years. Security records and transportation details could be confidential for up to seven days, under the bill.

"Rep. Richard's bill opens the door for the governor of Louisiana, arguably the most powerful governor in the country, and subjects his records to the same kind of openness that your records are open to, that my mayor's records are open to, that the sheriff's records are open to," Carl Redman, executive editor for The Advocate newspaper, told lawmakers.

When running for office in 2007, Jindal campaigned on improving government transparency in a state with a reputation for backroom political deals and public corruption. Since then, the Republican governor has opposed attempts to open more of his office's records.

Jindal backed legislation in 2009 that rewrote the governor's office public records exemption to assert the deliberative process privilege.

Enright claimed that offered more access than the public had previously, when the governor's office had a blanket exemption to shield documents.

"Before 2009, there was a 100 percent exemption for records of the governor, and now we've cut that down," he said.

But the deliberative process language has been broadly interpreted and instead used to expand what can be kept from public view.

Records in departments outside the governor's office have been withheld, and other agencies overseen by Jindal allies have started shielding documents by claiming the privilege and asserting it is established in federal and state case law.

The legal claim has been used to avoid turning over documents about controversial and politically sensitive topics, including the governor's school voucher program, disagreements over the handling of a controversial tax credit program and budget cuts to the LSU health care system and privatization efforts at university-run hospitals.

Robert Travis Scott, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said agencies are violating the law in claiming deliberative process, and he urged lawmakers to consider some legislation like Richard's bill to work on limiting attempts to assert the exemption.

"If this trend goes unchecked, every bureaucrat in every state agency in government will be marking documents and correspondence as off limits to public access simply because these government employees and not the law have decided to keep the records off limits. I'm telling you committee members, this is a problem," Scott said.

Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, agreed that lawmakers who rewrote the governor's public record exemption never intended the deliberative process claim to be used beyond the governor's office. But he questioned whether Richard's bill went too far, and he voted against the measure.

Richard said the deliberative process claim should be jettisoned entirely.

"I don't see a need for it, it's been abused so bad," he said.

Bill would allow colleges to set their own tuition

Two measures that would take lawmakers out of setting college tuition rates have started advancing in the Louisiana House.

The House Education Committee approved a bill Tuesday that would allow boards for the state's four public college systems to increase tuition and fee amounts under a policy that would be established by the Board of Regents.

The proposal, by New Orleans Rep. Walt Leger, was approved 13-4.

A second bill approved Tuesday by the House and Governmental Affairs Committee would take a different approach.

That measure by Shreveport Rep. Thomas Carmody would spell out in the Louisiana Constitution that college tuition and fee increases don't require a legislative vote.

Both bills head to the full House for debate.

Smoking ban receives backing from committee

A bid to ban smoking within 25 feet of the entrance to Louisiana state buildings received the backing of the House Health and Welfare Committee in a 15-1 vote Tuesday.

Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, said he's pushing the measure (House Bill 111) to keep non-smokers from the risks of secondhand smoke. He proposed a similar idea last year, but the measure was rejected by the state Senate.

Louisiana prohibits smoking in restaurants, public places, public buildings and many places of employment. Hoffmann would extend the ban to within 25 feet of state buildings' entrances and to their wheelchair ramps.

Hoffmann said violators would face a $25 fine the first time, a $50 fine for a second offense and a $100 fine for subsequent offenses.

The proposal has exceptions for the Louisiana Superdome and the New Orleans Arena, along with parish and city school board buildings.

Felon voting bill rejected

A House committee rejected a bill that would have allowed convicted felons to vote if they were out of prison but still on probation or parole.

Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said current law disenfranchises people who pay taxes. She said her proposal (Senate Bill 175) would encourage people to participate in society and would support re-entry programs designed to ensure people don't reoffend.

A victim rights' organization opposed the measure, saying convicted felons shouldn't be allowed to vote until they've completed their entire sentence.

The House and Governmental Affairs Committee voted 5-2 against the bill.

"You will see me again next year," Smith told committee members.

House reverses course on dog crate bill

The House reversed course Tuesday and backed a bill that would require dogs to be placed in a ventilated crate if they are in back of a pickup truck on interstate highway.

The proposal (House Bill 470) by Rep. Tom Wilmott, R-Kenner, advanced to the Senate on a 67-20 vote. It was Wilmott's second try on the measure. It had previously failed to win House support.

Wilmott said the bill was a safety measure, noting that dogs have been injured or killed after falling off the back of moving trucks.

State sets record with 26.3 million visitors

Louisiana attracted more than 26 million visitors in 2012, breaking a previous tourism record set in 2003.

Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne announced the new numbers Tuesday at the state museum in Baton Rouge.

Dardenne said the numbers, part of an annual study by the University of New Orleans Hospitality Research Center, indicate that the state's tourism sector is trekking up.

The study said 26.6 million people visited Louisiana in 2012, spending $10.7 billion compared to the 25.5 million people who visited in 2011 and spent $10 billion.

In 2003, the first year of the study, 26.2 million visitors came to Louisiana and spent $9.4 billion.

Dardenne says the uptick in visitors last year resulted in the creation of 8,000 new tourism jobs and generated $665 million in state tax revenue.

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