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Electoral, public pressure needed to pry open records

It’s like pulling teeth when it comes to getting information from the Legislature about nongovernmental entities it funds with Louisiana taxpayer dollars. This year looking to be $7 million worth, almost all of these groups have nothing to do with public policy or improving the quality of life for the state. As one insider put it referring to one particular organization slated for $300,000, the group is “a typical [legislator] pass-through to friends.”

Only last year, under heavy public pressure, did Gov. Kathleen Blanco start requesting any minimal information at all about these amendments, the legislator requesters of which generally are known to only a few individuals. The Legislature then grudgingly followed. But that seems to be as far as the at least the House of Representatives will go. A request by a newspaper to find out who was requesting what – which are forms sent by representatives to the Appropriations Committee – was turned down by the body’s appropriate officer, Clerk Butch Speer.

Speer argued that in his opinion, based upon LA Const. Art. III, Section 8, as interpreted by the LA First Circuit Court of Appeals in Copsey v. Baer, 91-0912 (Dec. 27, 1991) 539 So.2d 685 (La. App. 1st Cir.), that the information was “internal communications of legislators with their staff” because it was “background information provided by legislators to their staff” and thus exempt. Whether this assertion actually comports with case law is another matter.

The Constitution’s connection to Speer’s claim is tenuous, the relevant passage being, “No member shall be questioned elsewhere for any speech in either house.” The court case and opinion in question that apparently expands this passage to cover this instance I don’t have access to at this time, but a helpful summary I found on its surface gives Speer some support: “legislative work files related to two bills from prior sessions of the Louisiana legislature were privileged from public records disclosure under the legislative privileges and immunities clause of the Louisiana Constitution, Article III, § 8,” and the opinion states that “demand for legislative files in this case calls for an inquiry into the motivations behind the preparation and introduction of legislative instruments into the Louisiana Legislature….”

Without knowing more (and not being a lawyer much less one with expertise in this area), it seems to me that Speer’s interpretation is challengeable. But it’s not necessary to pursue judicial solutions to this problem when two political solutions exist that can change the situation almost immediately.

One would be for the Senate to get on the stick and pass HB 266 by state Rep. Blade Morrish. This bill would legally require the provision of the information in question. The bill sailed through both House committee and the chamber itself without any opposition, landing in the Senate Finance Committee almost a month ago – which has sat on it ever since. Don’t count on any movement unless there is a great public outcry.

But even quicker would be if Blanco would come out and announce she would line-item veto any spending of this nature whose sponsor does not publicly identify himself. This has even less chance of happening than the passage of HB 266 – and is one more reason why the citizenry should elect Rep. Bobby Jindal as governor this fall, as he has served notice that he won’t put up with this nonsense.

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