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Louisiana Bill Proposes Greater Secrecy in Local Government Dealings

Updated: Apr 10

A bill presented by Louisiana lawmakers on Thursday seeks to grant local governments the authority to shield most, if not all, of their business and financial dealings from public scrutiny.

The proposed legislation, House Bill 461, introduced by Rep. Steven Jackson, D-Shreveport, aims to exempt records concerning local and parish economic development projects from the Louisiana Public Records Law. The measure sailed through the House and Governmental Affairs Committee unopposed.

Under the bill's provisions, mayors, parish presidents, or chief executive officers of local governments would have the discretion to classify records as confidential if they determine that their release to the public "would have a detrimental effect" on ongoing business negotiations. Additionally, the bill permits the entity negotiating with the government to request confidentiality, extending secrecy to records detailing local government expenses related to the negotiations.

Jackson defended the bill by citing instances from his tenure on a local government board, where neighboring jurisdictions used public records requests to gain insight into offered business incentives, subsequently outbidding his locality for projects.

The state currently holds a similar exemption for port authorities and the Louisiana Economic Development (LED) agency, which can keep their records confidential, Jackson noted.

Critics, however, like First Amendment attorney Scott Sternberg, argue that the bill's broad language could effectively enable local governments to obscure any records they wish under the guise of economic development. Sternberg expressed concerns that if passed, the bill would mirror the challenges faced in obtaining records from port authorities since the enactment of their exemption.

Sternberg emphasized the importance of public oversight in government negotiations, citing instances where public outcry led to favorable adjustments in negotiations, such as a $20 million gain in tax revenue for Evangeline Parish.

The bill's implications extend beyond large-scale projects, affecting day-to-day public services and infrastructure negotiations, Sternberg pointed out, advocating for continued transparency.

Jackson clarified that the bill's purpose isn't to entirely conceal local government records and expressed willingness to consider Sternberg's input. He highlighted provisions in the bill requiring public notification when records are classified as private and ensuring eventual public access post-negotiation.

However, critics argue that delaying public access until negotiations conclude could hinder taxpayer participation and oversight in crucial decision-making processes.

Despite limited discussion, the committee unanimously advanced the bill to the House floor for further consideration.

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