Saturday, July 20, 2024

Lawmakers revive public records exemptions for Louisiana governor’s security

by BIZ Magazine

BY: PIPER HUTCHINSON – Louisiana Illuminator

The Louisiana House of Representatives advanced a bill — amended behind closed doors — to keep some records related to the governor’s travel plans from public view.

House Bill 268 by Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, was originally intended to clarify that public employees’ home addresses and personal telephone numbers are not public records. Johnson asked lawmakers to reject changes the Senate made to the bill, sending it to a conference committee where three lawmakers from each chamber met privately to reach a compromise.

In the final days of session, lawmakers sometimes use these closed-door conference committee meetings to revive stalled priorities, which is exactly what happened with Johnson’s bill.

Language inserted to his bill would exempt some details related to the governor’s schedule from public view until eight years have lapsed, sending the records to the state archives. The language is identical to that in a bill carried by one of the conference committee participants, Sen. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, that passed the Senate but never got a House committee meeting.

The language is the last remnant of a series of much broader proposals that would have eroded Louisiana’s Public Records Law, including one that stalled in the Senate to shield nearly every record at every level of government.

The new bill was approved by the House on an 85-12 vote Thursday and now only needs Senate approval before it goes to the governor’s desk for action.

Public records laws protect the public’s right to know what governments are doing. They’re part of “sunshine laws” that every state and the federal government has put in place to ensure transparency.

The exemption in Johnson’s bill specifically applies to “any record of the office of the governor pertaining to the schedule of the governor, his spouse, or his child that contains security details that if made public may impair the safety of the governor, his spouse, or his child.”

If taken literally, that exemption doesn’t pose a concern to Steven Procopio, president of the good government group Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, which advocates for sunshine laws.

“I’m afraid the governor’s office will take an overly broad interpretation,” Procopio said. “If you read the whole thing in context, you should be able to know the meetings the governor went to and how he got there … so if they follow that, it should be fine. But Louisiana governors, not just this one, have expanded their interpretation beyond what’s on the page.”

Presenting the changes to the House of Representatives, Johnson emphasized his intent was not to shield all details related to the governor’s travels and schedule. He said this is why the conference committee preserved language making records related to the governor’s schedule public after seven days.

In an interview, Miguez echoed this intent not to shield all records related to the governor’s travel — just those about him and his family related to their personal lives that could put their safety at risk if they were made publicly available. Records for his official and political engagements would still be subject to public records requests after the seven-day period that currently exists in state law, Miguez said.

“If he was speaking at a university or traveling to a conference, that would become available after seven days,” Miguez said. “That he spoke at ‘XYZ’ university, and he used the state helicopter or his SUV or whatever.”

But records such as when the governor and the first family visit the gym or where they eat lunch would be concealed, Miguez said. This would make it more difficult for someone to suss out their patterns, making it more difficult to plan an attack. Also protected would be school schedules for the governor’s children, Johnson said when the bill came up on the House floor.

In a statement to the Illuminator, Kate Kelly, a spokesperson for Landry, railed against journalists, not mentioning that the public also frequently uses public records.

“It’s concerning the media wants to know details that, if made public, would impair the safety of the governor and his family. In today’s world with the divisiveness and hatred exhibited by many, why would the media purposely want to report on things that would impair the safety of a family? The bill clearly states that meetings, events, or transportation must be made public other than those that may impair the safety and security of the First Family.”

While journalists do use public records requests to report on public officials work, watchdog organizations of all political leanings and private citizens also use public records to investigate government efficiency and wrongdoing. Any citizen with an interest in how their government operates has the right to request public records.

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