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Louisiana Senate committee approves economic development confidentiality bill


(The Center Square) — The Louisiana Committee on Senate and Governmental Affairs voted unanimously to move an amended bill on Wednesday that could provide confidentiality for economic development efforts.

House Bill 461 would allow parishes or a municipalities to prevent the disclosure of documents, including expense reports, related to economic development negotiations. It is now headed to the Senate floor for a vote.

Critics such as the Louisiana Press Association say HB 461 would hamper transparency as it would put restrictions on public record requests related to economic development projects in the negotiation phase.

It passed the House by a 79-18 vote on April 11.

The bill was amended by the committee to require that an economic development project covered by the records exception be valued at $5 million or greater.

In the original bill, local governments had 10 days to make a determination on whether to keep records confidential and inform the public, but the amendments cut that time to five days.

Another amendment would allow a municipal or parish executive to redact parts of a record request that “would identify or lead to the identification of the person with whom the local government is negotiating and such information shall be confidential until negotiations are concluded.”

The committee also added a four-year sunset provision for the bill, allowing lawmakers to take another look if the measure becomes law.

The bill sponsor, Rep. Steven Jackson, D-Shreveport, said it was a “simple bill that helps Louisiana stay competitive and would strengthen the hand of local governments with regard to negotiations for economic development. Once those negotiations are complete, those documents will be made readily available to the public.”

Sen. Mike Reese, R-Leesville, asked Jackson what kind of records were covered under the exemption created by his bill, which mirrors the ones for Louisiana Economic Development (passed by lawmakers in 2004) and ports in the state.

Debbie Hinton, the executive counsel for the Police Jury Association of Louisiana, testified before the committee.

She said any records that local officials believe would have a “detrimental effect on the negotiations” would be covered under the exemption provided should HB 461 become law.

The Louisiana Press Association, represented by attorney Scott Sternberg, opposed the bill, but he said the association appreciated the inclusion of a $5 million limit.

“Generally we are opposed to public records exceptions,” Sternberg said. “There are 310 municipalities, 64 parishes, but only 27 ports and one LED. I’m not sure what problem we’re trying to solve here and I don’t think that we don’t get businesses in this state because of public records.”

Sternberg cited a case in Evangeline Parish where taxpayers revolted against local officials when records requests revealed a tax rebate deal “that they didn’t think was fair.”

Steven Procopio, the president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, told the committee that his nonprofit organization still had some concerns with the bill, but they worked with Jackson on the amendments such as the $5 million project requirement.