Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Bill to let local governments hide business records stalls before final passage

by BIZ Magazine

BY: WESLEY MULLER – Louisiana Illuminator

A proposal to allow local governments to hide records related to business negotiations from the public failed to clear one of its final hurdles in the Louisiana Legislature. (Canva image)

A proposal to allow local governments to hide records related to business negotiations from the public failed to clear one of its final hurdles in the Louisiana Legislature.

House Bill 461 by Rep. Steven Jackson, D-Shreveport, would exempt records that could impact local and parish business projects from Louisiana’s Public Records Law. It was narrowly defeated in a 19-19 tied vote on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Jackson, a freshman lawmaker, planned to bring the proposal back before senators Thursday for a second try, but support for the measure may have weakened further. It’s unclear if he will try to move the bill again when lawmakers return Tuesday following the Memorial Day weekend. In a phone call Thursday, Jackson said he has not heard of any senators changing their positions on the bill and hasn’t yet decided what to do with it.

The proposal would have allowed a mayor, parish president and other local officials to declare any records confidential if they believed their public release “would have a detrimental effect” on an active business negotiation. It would have also allowed local governments to hide any records of expenses from the public if the expenses were related to the negotiations.

Jackson later limited his bill to apply only to projects valued at more than $5 million, and he added a four-year “sunset” provision that would have made the law expire on Jan. 1, 2028.

Public records are a common tool of investigative journalists, community watchdog groups and engaged citizens to expose government corruption, waste and other misdeeds. All states and the federal government have some version of a “sunshine” law for records.

However, state lawmakers have gradually chipped away at Louisiana’s Public Records Law, adopting more than two dozen changes to revoke public access to a long list of government documents since the law was enacted in 1940.

Although Jackson’s bill attracted very little scrutiny earlier in the session, lawmakers began to question it following public pushback over several similar proposals to hide government records from the public. Those bills, which were introduced at the request of Republican Gov. Jeff Landry, also stalled out.

One of those measures would have concealed most records of the governor’s office from the public, while a separate one was considered by many to be a near repeal of Louisiana’s Public Records Law.

During committee hearings on his bill, Jackson said he sponsored the measure because when he served on a local government board, consultants from other jurisdictions would file public records requests to find out what incentives were being offered to a business. The consultants or competing governments would then use the information to lure the projects away, he said.

Jackson’s bill created odd bedfellows. It found support from Jackson’s fellow Black Caucus Democrats and several conservative Republicans. At the same time, the Black Caucus remained firmly opposed to the other public records bills.

Jackson teamed with a Republican, Sen. Jean-Paul Coussan of Lafayette, who presented the bill on his behalf Tuesday on the Senate floor.

Coussan said the bill would benefit cities and parishes with industrial parks trying to negotiate leases with “large tenants” who would prefer to strike the deals in secret.

“If that becomes public, then they’re basically losing any of their leverage in the negotiations,” Coussan said.

The Illuminator obtained public records last year that revealed a proposed fertilizer plant in Jefferson Parish and a large tax incentive for the company behind the project. News reports about the company’s waffling promises of jobs prompted residents to speak out against the project, which was ultimately scrapped.

Debating Coussan on the floor, Sen. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, recounted similar situations in other parishes.

“I certainly understand the idea behind this, but I have tremendous concerns about the inability of the people of this state to have the opportunity to hear what their local officials are doing, what tax incentives they’re giving away, what jobs they’re able to get, and their agreements,” Pressly said. “… It’s important for people to have a right to step up and speak up against projects.”

Pressly also took issue with the bill’s lack of a definition of “economic development” records, which it describes as those pertaining to any project “involving the retention, expansion or attraction of further economic development.”

Sen. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, said the amendment that limited the exemption to projects valued over $5 million should put to rest any fears that local governments could use the law to hide most business and financial records.

Coussan pointed to a provision in the bill that would require local governments to put a notice on their websites and in their official journals whenever planning to hide records for an economic development project, as well as a provision that limits the secrecy of any records to no more than 24 months.

“I do believe that there are some protections,” Coussan said. “It’s not a free-for-all.”

Pressly said very few people pay much attention to their town’s website or official journal, “which no one reads.”

“This is a vast expansion of our current laws — and it’s wrong,” he said. “We need to make sure that the public has the opportunity to get information and to do what they determine is best for the people of their regions. If you had a tire plant that was being put into any of our districts which emitted a smell, you certainly would want your constituents to know about that, and I guarantee your constituents would want to know about that.”

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