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Bill: Document confidentiality tied to economic development advances

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(The Center Square) – Confidentiality for up to a year of documents related to local economic development projects is in legislation approved Thursday by a committee in the Louisiana House of Representatives.

Rep. Steven Jackson, D-Shreveport, authored House Bill 461, which would allow the executive of a parish or a municipality to prevent the disclosure of documents, including expense reports, related to economic development negotiations.

They would have to make a certification that those records were related to an ongoing negotiation and make that declaration public on both the governmental entity’s website and in the body’s official journal no later than 10 days after the declaration was issued.

According to the bill, those expense records would be obtainable once the negotiations were concluded.

Jackson, a former Caddo Parish commissioner, said other local governments in Texas and Arkansas would hire private consultants to perform records requests to discover what incentives local officials were offering for a particular economic development project.

He also said the state’s ports and the Louisiana Economic Development agency already have public records exemptions related to negotiations for 24 months.

The bill was supported by Brandon Browning, the Livingston Parish executive administrator; the Louisiana Municipal Association; Parish Presidents Association; and the Police Jury Associations.

The Louisiana Press Association, represented by attorney Scott Sternberg, opposed the bill. He said the association isn’t opposed to economic development. He mentioned the port records exception, which was passed by lawmakers five years ago and said press association members don’t get public records from the ports anymore because “everything is economic development.”

“I would suggest that local municipalities and cities, there is an economic development angle that everything a council does, a parish attorney’s office does, a clerk’s office,” Sternberg said.

He cited a recent 150,000-acre solar project in Evangeline Parish where the tax abatements were revealed via public records requests.

“The original deal with the solar farm was a split that was not necessarily appreciated by the local public,” Sternberg said. “So they showed up at the council meeting and they got a better deal. It got the parish about $20 million. We don’t get this if this bill passes.”

Sternberg also said the active negotiation designation would allow local governments to prevent the issuance of public records.

Jackson said he was unaware of any opposition to his bill and he’d be amenable to making the bill more acceptable to the press association before it makes to the floor for a vote.