Lawmakers advance bill to allow Nebraska public power companies to keep some records secret

February 15, 2019 GMT

A new exemption to the Nebraska Public Records Act would help protect the physical and cyber assets of the state’s public power providers, a state lawmaker said Thursday.

While federal regulations prohibit the disclosure of that information, a bill (LB16) from Sen. Tom Briese of Albion would offer broader exemptions from the public-records laws for Nebraska’s public power companies.

In addition to allowing public power providers to withhold details about engineering vulnerabilities in power plants, LB16 also extends the exemption to employees who work on “critical energy infrastructure,” as defined in federal law.

Briese’s proposed exemption would not extend to the general manager, president or CEO of the power providers, or its board members, however, and it would require public power entities to provide detailed job descriptions without naming who filled those positions.

“We live in an era where it’s not inconceivable that adverse interests can undermine the economic health and security of our state and nation by disrupting our energy infrastructure,” he said. “Providing this exception from public-records law can help minimize this risk.”

Other senators supported the bill, agreeing the security of Nebraska’s energy grid outweighed the public’s right to disclosure, but said allowing power companies to keep identities of employees secret may provide too wide a shield.

Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers said the bill duplicated federal law, which already allows that information to be kept secret, and Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop added that the bill could be construed to allow public power entities to withhold information about all of their employees.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers argued the bill amounted to an “unconstitutional delegation of legislative authority,” without language clarifying the current federal critical energy infrastructure regulations.

If Congress changed the definitions in the federal law, state law would automatically change with it, Chambers said, and Nebraska lawmakers would be delegating their legislating duties to another body, potentially resulting in a lawsuit.

Briese said he would review the suggestions of his fellow senators, and LB16 advanced to the second round on a 38-0 vote.

If it becomes law, the bill would make the second exemption to the Nebraska Public Records Act that state lawmakers have given public power providers in consecutive years.

Last year, Gov. Pete Ricketts signed a bill allowing providers to withhold competitive information “which a reasonable person, knowledgeable of the electric utility industry, could conclude gives an advantage to business competitors” following a Nebraska Supreme Court challenge brought by an private energy company.