When lawmakers pressed Gov. Bobby Jindal earlier this month to open up more public records in his office, his chief attorney offered an assortment of objections, but none were as sound as his argument on protecting ongoing negotiations related to economic development. “If it’s going to be on the front page of the paper, that’ll chill their interest,” Jimmy Faircloth told the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Access to public records doesn’t just benefit the media. The state’s citizenry stands to gain as well, since lawsuits are currently the only way to glean certain information from the executive staff. In fact, the Citizen Access Project at the University of Florida, which grades states on access, ranks Louisiana’s governor’s office as dead last when it comes to public records.

While Louisiana’s present law allows the public to access certain financial transactions in the governor’s office, practically everything else is shielded from view, especially documents that offer critical insight into the policymaking process. House Bill 27, by Shreveport Republican Rep. Wayne Waddell, seeks to remove that veil of secrecy, but exemptions will likely be written into the measure before it reaches Jindal’s desk — if it even does. 

The opt-out for economic development projects is anticipated, and it makes sense to both opponents and proponents. Companies that are negotiating with the state about a possible move or expansion won’t want their communications made public. Confidentiality is of the upmost importance if Louisiana wants to compete on a national scale to lure jobs and new business, according to Faircloth.

It’s a trade — giving up public access in exchange for better economic performance. But it begs a gaggle of questions: How much information does the administration want to mask? Has this avoidance of transparency discouraged Jindal’s stakeholders from the ongoing special session? Does it send the wrong message from a state trying to achieve the “gold standard” in ethics reform?

All of the answers must strike a balance between discretion and openness, which is a task that’s sometimes easier to promise than execute.

Following the tide of Alabama

When it comes to the proverbial gold standard in this area, which is phrasing Jindal has used repeatedly during the ongoing special session to describe his goals for ethics reform, the Citizen Access Project has ranked Alabama first in the nation when it comes to public access of gubernatorial and executive staff records.

The comparison of the two southern states isn’t new. Alabama went head-to-head with Louisiana in a heated race last year to capture a German steel mill, and walked away the victor. The defeat is still a sour note in some of Louisiana’s economic development circles.

Todd C. Stacy, deputy press secretary for Alabama’s GOP Gov. Bob Riley, says his boss, like Jindal, pushed a special ethics reform agenda shortly after being elected, which is when everything from flight logs to executive spending was made readily available to the public.

Riley, however, was also very protective of the state’s economic development deals, Stacey notes, and put safeguards in place so negotiations wouldn’t be compromised. But he didn’t go overboard and even went as far as to keep open some documents related to ongoing negotiations.

When reporters and special interests were trying to follow the German steel mill drama last year, more information about Alabama’s bidding process was made available compared to what was released under Louisiana’s public records laws, according to Jim Brandt, president of the Public Affairs Research Council.

“In our view, the states which use a more open process have often been the winners in economic development competitions between states,” Brandt says.

The push-back on privacy

Yet in the specific area of economic development, Faircloth urged the committee to allow the governor’s office to retain the authority to conceal most related matters. It’s a far cry from meeting the standard set by Alabama, and most other states in the union, which runs contradictory to one of the hallmark goals of the Jindal administration.

The governor is particularly fond of national rankings, and his promise to voters has long been to vault Louisiana to the pinnacle of these various lists. Studies by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C., watchdog group, along with the Chicago-based Better Government Association, are routinely quoted by Jindal.

While economic development is the administration’s dominant arguments, Faircloth also said he has “work product concerns,” meaning the executive staff wouldn’t be able to speak their minds in e-mails, be blunt in memorandums or, generally, be politically incorrect. All such materials would be public documents under Waddell’s original legislation.

Faircloth also reminded lawmakers this week — no less than three times in one hearing — that information regarding their own communications with the governor’s office could become public as well if the bill succeeds. Waddell said he was willing to work with Jindal on cutting the legislation down to only key elements for public view, while also maintaining privacy on sensitive issues such as economic development and homeland security. Negotiations are ongoing. But that sentiment could transform into practically anything, from total disclosure to no disclosure, by the time the special session ends, presumably, on March 1.

Weighing in on Jindal

Where the line should be drawn in Jindal’s office is a hard answer to pin down. Many of the major stakeholders in his push for ethics reform were asked to comment on the administration’s stance, but the only direct answers delivered about the legislation came from PAR, a nonprofit think-tank that helped craft some of Jindal’s broad-based ethics agenda.

Aside from the legitimate need to protect trade secrets and proprietary information, negotiations on large-scale economic development projects should be conducted in the open, based on PAR’s longtime stances. “We reaffirm our desire to see that the sunshine laws apply to as much of the governor’s office as possible,” Brandt said.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, one of the most influential lobbies in the state, as well as the Council for a Better Louisiana, another good-government group, opted against offering comments for this column.

Blueprint Louisiana and LA Ethics 1, meanwhile, which are supported by powerful business interests, both released statements offering words of support for Jindal’s official agenda, which doesn’t include Waddell’s proposal for opening executive records. Neither organization offered direct comments regarding the legislation.  

From the top down

Many legislators have been put off by Jindal’s stance, especially in light of him asking the Legislature to disclose its own financial information. Waddell has advised Jindal that “he can’t just start with us,” and others have chimed in as well. “We’re here for transparency,” said Rep. Cameron Henry, a New Orleans Republican. “The whole session deals with that, and the governor doesn’t want to join in for this particular purpose. It seems awkward to me — at best.”

But when it comes to protecting the office, Republican Jindal isn’t the first governor to speed away in horror. It’s a proud tradition of all of Louisiana’s chief executives, and it won’t be the last time such a concept is shot down. Waddell’s legislation has seen time in a legislative committee before. It was opposed by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Jindal’s Democratic predecessor. Waddell had sought records in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to form a timeline, something every reputable publication in the nation, and most of the western world, was also trying to do. It finally came down to a records request from the White House.

But this time around, Waddell contends that Jindal, a Republican, has set the proverbial bar higher than any other. His central campaign theme last year was ethics reform.

“The governor has stated many times that we must make all, and I stress all, public official records as transparent as possible,” Waddell says. “The public has a right to know that no conflict of interest exists.”

As for how the legislation might turn out, it’s anyone’s guess. “It is unclear in this special session exactly where they would draw the lines in exceptions in the governor’s office,” Brandt says. Part of that uncertainty has to do with all of the new faces in the Legislature, due to term limits. But one thing hasn’t changed — a mandate from voters last year for real ethics reform.

“When you talk about transparency,” says Waddell, “you really need to start at the top and work your way down.”

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