Needed: citizen engagement on bills regarding sunshine laws and domestic violence



The Louisiana Constitution bars state lawmakers from considering revenue-raising bills in the current legislative session, but that hasn’t stopped them from taking up gravely important matters that warrant citizens’ close attention — and engagement.

Two cases in point:

• At least a dozen bills in both the House and Senate take aim at Louisiana’s public records, public notice and open meetings laws — known collectively as “Sunshine Laws.” A few of the measures would strengthen our Sunshine Laws, but most would weaken them in one way or another.

• The Senate this week will consider a bill to strengthen Louisiana’s anti-domestic violence laws by requiring stricter enforcement of existing laws that require domestic abusers to surrender their firearms.

Believe it or not, Louisiana has strong Sunshine laws, which occasionally come under attack when a politician or public agency gets offended by a public records request or adverse media coverage.

“We have seen over the last few years a broad-spectrum assault on public notice, open meetings and public records laws,” says Scott Sternberg, a local First Amendment lawyer and attorney for the Louisiana Press Association (LPA). “It’s shocking to me, because open government is better government — and it knows no political persuasion.”

(Disclosure: I sit on the board of directors of the LPA, which has fought for years to defend Sunshine Laws.)

One myth about Sunshine Laws that enemies of open government like to spread is that only the media care about those laws. Here’s the truth: Public bodies spend taxpayers’ money, manage taxpayers’ assets and conduct taxpayers’ business. That’s why many taxpayers take the time to inquire about such matters — and to insist on speedy replies as required by law.

If you care about keeping the public’s business in the public eye, contact state representatives and senators in your area and tell them to vote against any bill that would weaken any of the Sunshine Laws. The most effective form of lobbying is a barrage of phone calls from constituents.

Kim Sport, a force of nature when it comes to advocating for domestic violence victims, is a classic example of how engaged citizens can make a difference. Sport will be in Baton Rouge this week to advocate for Senate Bill 231 by state Sen. J.P. Morrell. SB 231 would require law enforcement and gun dealers to help enforce existing laws that bar domestic abusers who are subject to protective orders from possessing, carrying or obtaining firearms or ammunition.

Louisiana’s existing domestic violence laws already bar domestic abusers — including those subject to protective orders — from possessing firearms, but the law has not been enforced uniformly. In fact, Louisiana still has a horribly high rate of women being murdered by domestic abusers using firearms.

“Despite strong existing laws, Louisiana remains third in the nation for domestic homicides,” Sport says. “The goal of SB 231 is to give the criminal justice system tools they can use to prevent senseless domestic violence homicides. By requiring gun dealers and local law enforcement to proactively help keep abusers from getting firearms, SB 231 will save lives.”

That, too, is a good reason to call your representatives and senators.

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