Â The project relies on a quirky index reminiscent of the Weather Channel, with bright sunshine on one end of the spectrum (completely open) and a dark sky on the other (completely closed). Access to the Legislature is well above average, even though the constitutional provision calling for such openness does not directly identify the body by name. Availability of election records pulled from state voting machines is another area that scored high on the index. Louisiana falls largely in the middle in most categories, although a few ' children's records for medical examiners, certain computer records, gubernatorial documents ' are second-to-last on the index, dubbed as "nearly dark."
There are always a dozen or more bills filed in every regular session of the Legislature that seek to chip away at public access to government documents. Barry Erwin, president of a Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit that monitors the activities of state government, says that persistence may be more dangerous than the actual intent of the bills.
"It is very disconcerting," Erwin says. "It seems there is always an effort to create an exemption or find a loophole. Some years are worse than others, and you never know what's going to come up. They just keep coming back again and again. The good news, though, is that most of these bad bills usually get killed."
Baton Rouge Rep. William Daniel was pushing legislation that would have excluded law enforcement personnel records from public view, including disciplinary actions, but he pulled it from consideration in the face of opposition from the Louisiana Press Association and others.
"I'm not going anywhere with that bill," Daniel confirms, making this the second consecutive year he has personally introduced and then withdrawn the concept.
As one door closes, however, another opens. Rep. Clo Fontenot, a Livingston Parish Republican, has a bill that would expunge certain files related to internal police department investigations. If an officer is accused of a wrongdoing, then later found innocent, the charge could be removed from the officer's jacket. "But if the accusations are true, they stay in the record," Fontenot says.
Â Not only would the information be erased from documents available to the public for viewing, it would also be shielded from superiors and future employers.
Â On the state level, the Insurance Department wants to close off certain public records connected to companies that do business with the Louisiana Casualty and Surety Rating Commission. The measure by New Orleans Democratic Rep. Karen Carter, a New Orleans Democrat, identifies "biographical information" as being exempt from sunshine laws but offers no definition of the term.
Additionally, the Department of Transportation and Development has a set of bills filed for the session that would prohibit preconstruction estimates from being viewed by the public until all bids on the project are received.
Some of these concepts might not look like much on the surface, but Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says they set a dangerous precedent if approved and applied the wrong way.Â
"It all depends on the legislative intent, but any time an exception is being made to government operating in the open, that should immediately raise questions," Cook says. "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and it pays to be vigilant any time the Legislature is in session."
On the flip side, a few current bills aim to further open up government to public inspection ' but aren't gaining much traction. A bill that would have made public certain documents in the governor's office ' just like the way all other state agencies are treated ' met a quiet defeat earlier this month.
Terry Ryder, executive counsel to Gov. Kathleen Blanco, rattles off a number of reasons that helped lawmakers torpedo the proposal. Information shared in the executive branch is sensitive, he tells them, and answering public requests of that nature would be too time-consuming for the staff. But most of all, the governor's ability to receive information freely would be obstructed.Â Â
Rep. Mert Smiley, a Republican from Port Vincent, notes an irony in the administration's opposition. He recalls how Blanco was elected as a reformer and how she has made ethics a central platform in nearly every session.
"I couldn't think of any way better to show transparency than this," Smiley says, referring to the defeated legislation.
New Orleans Rep. Peppi Bruneau has filed another version of the bill that would allow Blanco's personal records to remain sealed but open up all other sections of her office.
The ultimate responsibility of keeping an open government resides with the voters, who have the final say in how government should operate. Cook contends it is the only way to ensure accountability.
"Any time the government tries to do business behind closed doors and knock out the sunshine, it is a threat to freedom and democracy and accountability," Cook says. "Never forget: these people work for us and they should answer to us."
So far the Democratic agenda includes proposals to expand Medicaid; increase the minimum wage; offer equal pay to women; heighten regulations on predatory lending practices, like payday loans; and add more transparency in the governor’s office.
Hot-button education issues ranging from Common Core to charter schools have some lawmakers pushing to scrap the appointing process and go back to electing the state's super.
Police say the handcuffed man fatally shot himself in the back, but his family isn't buying the story.
Gov. Bobby Jindal offered a budget proposal that suggests new education and health care spending, pay raises for state workers and an incentive fund to encourage colleges to enhance their science, engineering and technology training.
Here's your daily look at late-breaking national and international news, upcoming events and the stories that will be talked about Tuesday, March 11, 2014:
Hopefully he’ll be better prepared today than he was in that Feb. 20 deposition.
They came by the hundreds, arriving from all regions of the state to gather on the steps of our Capitol in protest of the Legislature’s long tradition of giving industry the go-ahead to abuse our air, our water and our coastline, all in the name of good economics.
Gov. Bobby Jindal’s recent rhetoric against President Barack Obama has failed to boost his standing among the conservative base.
Louisiana's annual legislative session begins.
The state has hired marksmen to shoot feral hogs from helicopters at two wildlife management areas in south Louisiana.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has stalled action on a $3.5 billion annual school funding formula due to state lawmakers by March 15.
The New Orleans Saints have yet to make it official as of this writing, but popular wide receiver Lance Moore has reportedly been cut by the team to free up salary-cap space on the roster.
While two medical marijuana bills are slated for the upcoming legislative session, what some Louisianans might not know is that the plant was approved for therapeutic use by state lawmakers in 1991.
The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative — a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law — collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
Sharper has been held without bail because of an arrest warrant issued by Louisiana authorities accusing him and another man of raping two women.
Two Lafayette men have been revealed by police as the infamous duo behind a caper that shook our fair city to its core.
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
The Louisiana coastline is vanishing faster than mappers can keep track.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
State prison officials cannot keep secret the seller and manufacturer of the two drugs purchased for executions at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
State lawmakers will not appeal a judge's ruling that it was improper to use $3.7 million from a probation and parole officers' retirement fund to balance the state's operating budget.
Conservatives have been losing their minds over this satirical bit on the Colbert Report.
The Lafayette Parish School Board leaves a lot to be desired, but is scrapping the election process in favor of an appointed board the answer?
The House approved legislation Tuesday night to roll back a recently enacted overhaul of the federal flood insurance program, after homeowners in flood-prone areas complained about sharp premium increases.