Editor’s Note: This column, which earned Sam Hanna Jr. a first place award for best regular column in the Louisiana Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest, was first published the week of April 2, 2018.
In this year’s regular legislative session, we have witnessed an unprecedented assault on the state’s public records laws.
The “we” in this equation is the Louisiana Press Association (LPA), to which this newspaper and its two sister newspapers belong. In all, there are roughly 120 daily and weekly newspapers from across the state that belong to the LPA. Yours truly serves on the board of directors of the association.
Like any association whose interests intersect with the state Legislature, the LPA employs a lobbyist and an attorney to monitor legislation that might impact newspapers in Louisiana. When need be, the LPA lobbyist, who also is an attorney, and the LPA’s attorney, who is an authority on First Amendment issues, communicate with state lawmakers about the LPA’s opposition to or support of legislation pending before the Legislature. Often times, newspaper publishers from across the state will communicate with lawmakers to express concern over a particular piece of legislation or to inform lawmakers that a bill is a good bill and should become law.
The vast majority of the efforts the LPA expends on legislative affairs concern access to public records and other freedom of information issues.
Whether you recognize it or not, the “we” in this affair also is “you,” assuming “you” are a citizen of Louisiana and give two hoots about the decisions the Legislature makes, which sooner or later will impact your life in a positive or negative manner.
The public records laws are on the books for a reason. They’re there so the press as well as any private citizen can access the official records of government. Want to know how much money your local school board spends in a given year? Well, the school board’s budget is a public record. If you want a copy of it, the law says you can have a copy of it. Of course, the school board is going to charge a fee for a copy of the budget but it’s available to you if you want it. The same goes for your local city council or police jury or sheriff’s office and just about any and every public entity that operates in Louisiana.
The public records laws cover far more than government budgets. Want to know whether an elected official has a criminal record? It’s a public record. Care to learn which company submitted the low bid to build the new road running in front of your home, you can get the information. It’s a public record.
The list of issues and concerns and records that are subject to the public records laws goes on and on. However, there are exceptions to the public records laws that, for one reason or another, were approved by the Legislature in years past. This year, several pieces of legislation were filed to extend those exceptions to other information in the possession of public bodies.
House Bill 665 comes to mind. Authored by Rep. Greg Miller of Norco, HB 665 would withhold from the public any record of economic development negotiations between a port and a corporation that wishes to do business with a port or establish a business presence under a port’s purview. Just like the exception to the public records law extended to Louisiana Economic Development, the public records exception for the ports would extend for two years. In other words, for two years the press and any concerned citizen would, by law, be denied access to any public record regarding a port’s negotiations and/or agreements with a corporation that might do business with or at the port in question.
Just about anyone and everyone who has an interest in the Port of New Orleans, including the lawmakers who represent the greater New Orleans area, have gone full throttle to pass HB 665. Proponents of the bill argue the public records exception is necessary because states like Texas deny public records in a similar vein.
So, I guess if Texas does, Louisiana should, too.
HB 665 is a bad bill, but here’s predicting it will be approved by the Legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards will sign it into law.
Another horrible bill making its way through the legislative process is HB 749, otherwise known as the Uber/Lyft bill.
Authored by House Speaker Taylor Barras, HB 749 would exempt from the public record the driving record and/or criminal record of someone who drives for Uber or Lyft. In other words, if Uber or Lyft hired a driver who has had a DWI, the press or a private citizen would be denied access to the driver’s driving record. If Uber or Lyft hired a convicted child molester, the press and “you” would be barred from knowing about it.
Let that sink in.
Proponents of HB 749 claim it’s needed to prevent disgruntled taxi cab drivers from finding out exactly who’s driving for Uber and Lyft. I suppose we are expected to believe there exists the possibility of a horde of angry taxi cab drivers marching through streets of Louisiana hunting down Uber drivers.
Judging by the vast number of lobbyists who have been hired to push HB 749 through the Legislature, one might be correct if one assumed there’s far more at play than simply preventing the taxi cab folks from learning the identity of Uber and Lyft drivers.
Then again, the answer to the riddle could be as simple as closing off the public record so the press can’t report about a convicted child molester or DWI offender driving for Uber or Lyft.
The long and short of it is this: If “you” give a flip about knowing what your government is doing which might impact your life, call or email your lawmakers today and tell them to quit fiddling with the public records laws. If, for some asinine reason, your lawmakers ask why you’re so interested in it, simply say, “What are you trying to hide?”
Sam Hanna Jr. can be reached by phone
at 318-805-8158 or e-mail at