Jim Beam column:Amended bill is unacceptable

Published 6:44 am Saturday, May 11, 2024

Louisiana legislators through the years have proved they know how to overcome controversial legislation. Sen. Jay Morris, R-West Monroe, is the latest to use that tactic after a public outcry over a public records bill.

Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, with support from Republican Gov. Jeff Landry, has been trying to pass her Senate Bill 482 that would close public records at every government level.

The newspaper reported that “after weeks of outcry from the public and failed efforts to corral votes,” Morris came up with an amendment to his own bill, SB 423. The change would exempt only the public records of the governor’s office.

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Morris’ bill originally would have only barred non-Louisiana residents from accessing public records. His amendment also adds a bill by Sen. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, that requires persons seeking public records to prove their identification.

The rewritten three-in-one bill got out of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee and it is up Monday for debate and final Senate action. If approved there, it moves to the House.

Senate President Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, whom I said last week was “the voice of reason,” sounds as though he would go along with the committee’s changes that keep all of the governor’s records secret.

Henry said Morris’ amendment was more palatable than Cloud’s original, controversial legislation. In an interview, he said, “This is more realistic than the broad way it originally started.”

The Advocate reminded its readers that the current open public records law over the years has helped uncover police violence, misuse of taxpayer money and government corruption by members of both major political parties. It added that journalists, political activists, and public policy groups alike have wielded the law to unearth previously unknown information about government activity.

Robert Krieg of Baton Rouge, in a letter to The Advocate, said what many opponents of these public records bills have had to say.

“I admit I supported Jeff Landry, both financially and with my vote,” Krieg said. “However, I have to say that he is way off base in his effort to restrict access to records of our public bodies.

“It is the public’s responsibility to elect those we feel will perform their jobs in the interest of the public. It is also the responsibility of the public to inspect what they expect…

“Cutting off access to inspecting what the public expects creates a danger of not knowing if officials are doing their jobs — or worse, not being able to safeguard against unbridled overreaches of authority and power.”

Jane Brock of Denham Springs offered a tough response in her letter to the newspaper.

“Our power-hungry governor and his gutless legislative followers are in the process of dismantling the state’s public records law,” Brock said.

Former Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal got legislators to exempt his records after he took office in 2008, but The Advocate said Morris’ amended bill appears broader than the Jindal-era legislation.

Former Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor of Baton Rouge sponsored the bill in 2015 that opened the governor’s records back up. His legislation said “no person shall be prevented from inspecting or obtaining an electronic or physical reproduction of such records.” And that means you don’t have to prove your identity to get those records.

The Claiitor bill passed the Senate 35-0 and the House 103-0.

Up until now, legislators have improved public records laws and defended them without hesitation. Unfortunately, times have changed and not for the better. Mick Jagger was right when he said Landry is taking Louisiana back to the Stone Age.

Jane Brock in her letter also addressed Landry’s continuing effort to write a new state constitution.

Brock said, “If we let these chefs prepare a new constitution, we are all cooked,” she said.

Landry has said a lot about transparency since he took office Jan. 8. In a special session on crime, he said, “The lack of transparency in our criminal justice system is unacceptable.”

However, when asked often about decisions being made by him or his administration, the governor and his office repeatedly refuse to comment or he simply walks away.

Sen. Morris’ three-in-one bill isn’t much better than Sen. Cloud’s legislation that would have wiped the public records law off the books.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than six decades. Contact him at 337-515-8871 or jim.beam.press@gmail.com.


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