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|Walsworth bill targets public records|
Legislation filed by state Sen. Mike Walsworth would require some members of the governor's staff to comply with laws aimed at transparency in government.
At the same time, Senate Bill 629 would make private communications between the governor and key members of his staff. Communications between the governor and the governor's staff with officials at the state's economic development department, office of homeland security and military department would be private, too.
Also, the public would be denied access to communications between the governor and the governor's staff with members of the Legislature.
In all, those communications would be shielded from the state's so-called "sunshine laws," or laws aimed at giving citizens access to public records.
Walsworth said the need for the bill became apparent during Gov. Bobby Jindal's special session on ethics reform, when legislators learned how many state employees in the governor's executive office were not required to comply with sunshine laws.
"Right now, there are a lot of loopholes on a number of government offices within the governor's office," said Walsworth. "A lot of the administration is exempt from the public records law, so this bill narrows that group by about 75 percent."
Currently, all correspondence between the governor, his chief of staff and virtually all individuals on his executive staff are exempt from compliance with the sunshine laws.
Under Walsworth's proposal the executive departments of Homeland Security and Economic Development would remain exempt.
Shielding communication between members of the Legislature and the governor and his staff would be added to state law under Walsworth's bill.
Walsworth said confidentiality was necessary to bring about good government.
"If you are going to govern effectively, there has got to be a certain level of confidentiality between those with whom one has the responsibility to govern," Walsworth said.
Walsworth said the governor and his staff must take the pulse of legislators from time to time without raising too many hopes or alarming anyone.
State Sen. Kostelka agreed and pointed to American history to back up his opinion.
"The Constitution of the United States of America, the greatest document ever written, was written in privacy," Kostelka said.
Kostelka said he believed privacy in legislative negotiations gave legislators the comfort to discuss ideas aloud, change their minds and develop affective laws.
If Walsworth's bill becomes law, negotiations with companies looking to locate in Louisiana would also remain exempt from public records laws.
Walsworth said such information should be exempt from public records requests because they deal with security issues or with negotiations between the state and potential major employers for Louisiana.
According to Walsworth, the nature of those negotiations requires some level of secrecy because the competition for major employers is intense.
"If you have to make all that public, then you are at an obvious disadvantage in negotiating with companies who are looking at other states, states who don't have this level of transparency," Walsworth said. "If Alabama or Mississippi knows we are putting $10 million on the table for a new factory, then they'll put $11 million."
Kostelka noted that many companies would not look twice at a state where negotiations were public because it would put the company at a disadvantage with its competitors.
"Disclosure of economic development projects in negotiations is a thorn because you cannot reveal who these companies we are talking to," said Kostelka. "They'll run off and go elsewhere."
Walsworth's bill also keeps the sunshine law exemption in place for the governor's office of Homeland Security.
Walsworth said many times secrecy is a matter of security.
"I'm not going to sit here and lie and say the other guys don't know our vulnerabilities," Walsworth said. "But you don't want to go out and advertise those vulnerabilities."
Walsworth emphasized he was not in favor of using the laws to hide information concerning obvious threats or situations of immediate danger.
Instead, Walsworth said he believed people understood the need to keep some information out of the public record.
"The people don't mind some cloak of secrecy for their protection," Walsworth said.
Though Walsworth's bill allows for the exemption of correspondence between state officials and employees, the bill requires full disclosure of all financial transactions made on behalf of exempted departments.
That means any time the state receives money or writes a check, the public still has the right to know how the money was spent, Walsworth said.
Walsworth's bill was assigned to the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. Kostelka chairs the committee; Walsworth serves on the committee as well.
The bill is expected to be heard next week.