When Transparency Becomes a Pawn

June 4, 2012

Political Game Goes A Little Too Far

By Laura O’Halloran

An interesting issue came up at the last minute within the 2012 legislative session. House Bill 756, authored by Rep. Abramson, was written to expand the exemptions by adding items (e) through (g) to RS 44:4 of the Public Records Law on three specific points for boards and institutions of higher education.

The bill didn’t really gain much attention from anyone until Friday, when the Senate (with no opposition) attached four amendments to Abramson’s bill and sent it back to the House for concurrence. It was one of those amendments which was proposed by State Senator Edwin Murray that caught our eye.

Photo by Nola.com

His amendment would have added to RS 44:5 with item (F), pertaining to records of the Governor.

The item (F) that Murray attempted to add stated:

(F) This Chapter [The Open Records Law] shall not apply to any communications, including any mail, electronic mail, short message service message, multi-media message or instant message, having been used, being in use, possessed, or retained for use by the legislature or a legislator in the usual course of the duties and business of the legislature or his legislative office.

In other words, this amendment would have caused any communication of the legislature obtained by the Governor and/or his internal staff to no longer be accessible for the public.

So naturally we wanted to know:

1. Why would the Senate NOT want any of their records obtained by Governor Jindal to become public, and
2. What did this amendment have to do with the bill?

Word on the street is that Governor Jindal was using the Open Records Law as leverage to manipulate the legislature. He has been “bullying” certain Senators by threatening to draw attention to communications between them and particular boards of education. This would have been a way for the Senate to push back at the Governor’s office by making it illegal for Jindal and his internal staff to do so.

Photo by Politico.com

But wait! Governor Jindal would have to sign the bill to become law. If this were the case, was the legislature just hoping he wouldn’t notice it? OR, is the story not true? Was it the governor wanting this amendment added to serve a completely different purpose? It could work either way, and what would have been the trade-off on either side as a result had this passed?

Mostly, who would have benefited from it? It certainly would not have been the people Louisiana.

Our Open Records Law was enacted in 1940 and has been amended over the years to adjust the language for changing times and a growing government. Unfortunately, as this bill expands in its exemptions – transparency shrinks.

According to Sunshine Review.org:

In 2007, Governor Bobby Jindal came to office with a stated goal of increasing transparency and accountability in Louisiana government. In 2008 several pieces of legislation were passed during a special session on ethics and accountability reform that lasted from February 10th to February 26th.”

So for 16 days, our legislature was in special session addressing this issue. But what resulted in Louisiana’s rank among other states on this? Between ’07 and ’08, our state fell a notch down a very dangerous and slippery slope.

SunshineReview.org continues:

A 2007 study, Graded state responsiveness to Freedom Of Information requests, conducted by the Better Government Assoc. and the Nat’l Freedom of Information Coalition, gave Louisiana 78 points out of a possible 100, a letter grade of “C”, and a ranking of 3 out of the 50 states.

Then in a 2008 study, BGA – Alper Integrity Index, dropped our rank to #5 in the nation with an overall percentage of 61.40%.

One would hate to see our rank sink even more within a country that is already struggling with the issue of transparency as a whole.   There was no limit in the amendment as to how much documentation the governor could pull.  What if he decided to pull all documents within a time period? Or all documentation on a particular issue? All information that was once accessible to us would be gone.

Too many questions were to be answered.  It was a dangerous political game to play as transparency was the pawn, although we should be relieved that the Senate did decide today to strip Murray’s proposal from the bill after the Tea Parties took notice.

 

If you still don’t see the importance in this, let’s take a step back for a moment and look at the big picture on this issue.  Suppose you own a business. You trust your employees to handle legitimate company business on a daily basis 365 days a year. This is your livelihood and you must be careful to find the right employees and trust them with the use of company resources – on company computers, company communications, company time, etc.   Then the employees decide to make it where YOU, as the OWNER are no longer able to access their work – right down to a simple office memo. You no longer have the right to know what they are doing with your company – it has essentially been hijacked and all accountability is lost on all levels. 

Well, we the citizens of Louisiana are the owners of a company called the State of Louisiana.  The legislators and the Governor are public servants – our employees whom we elect and pay to handle the business of Louisiana.  If HB 756 were to pass with this amendment by Sen. Murray, this would have been an assault on our business. How does it feel that this legislature and/or the Governor would have chosen to compromise the trust of the constituency? To “hijack” the business of the people?  As we came close to slipping down that slippery slope of trust, we will continue to be on the watch, keeping in mind the next election with other voters — our partners in this business – to replace them with accountable employees.


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