| USA TODAY Network-Florida
During a normal session of the Florida Legislature, the halls of the Capitol and the House and Senate office buildings are filled with advocates, constituents and lobbyists, all hoping to get face time to persuade their elected officials on any given issue. The constituents come from all walks of life, and they typically come to Tallahassee to have their issues heard. Not this year.
This year’s session is anything but normal. The pandemic has become a rationale that has turned “open government” on its proverbial ear. For a state with a still iconic public records and open meetings law, the Legislature is on lockdown when it comes to conducting people’s business. At the moment, it is easier for coronavirus to get into the Capitol than constituents.
And the limited access to lawmakers and legislative hearings amounts to an affront to the public’s right to know.
“It’s about interacting with folks,” said Karen Woodhall, a longtime lobbyist for Florida’s poor and underserved communities who is critical of the precautions that the two lawmaking chambers have imposed. “We understand that you can’t pack rooms, but all of that could be done safely. As advocates, we’re at a distinct disadvantage right now by not being able to function.”
Pity the person who may want to travel to Tallahassee to testify before a state Senate committee. Individuals must first go to the Donald Tucker Civic Center, located about a half-mile from the capitol complex and the only place one can participate in a senate hearing — remotely. The next step involves filling out an “appearance card” with a question or comment which is then taken to the committee by runners. Once acknowledged, the participant gets one to three minutes of the committee’s time. While the senators attend the hearings in person, the public for the most part are kept at a digital distance.
The procedure for the Florida House is different. This chamber requires in-person testimony. Individuals hoping to testify before a House committee must fill out an “appearance card” online well before the scheduled hearing. If the submission snares a confirmed reservation, they should be ready to go to the Capitol to obtain a pass and directions to the scheduled hearing. Obtaining an online confirmation occurs on a first-come-first-serve basis since seating is limited.
Both procedures can be daunting and unfair.
The COVID-19 related safety barriers aren’t quite as difficult for the well-heeled, better-connected lobbyists from the big law and consulting firms that routinely work the governor’s mansion and Legislature during the session. Even though they too are barred from walking the halls of the Capitol, they have the advantage of meeting lawmakers and senior staff of the governor’s office in the many posh restaurants, private clubs and bars near the capitol complex. For them, access to influential lawmakers and government administrators is still relatively easy.
Florida has long had a reputation for broad public records and open meeting laws. Chapter 119 of state statutes defines public records to include paper documents, electronic records, photos and videos. The law requires that those documents be made available to the public unless government officials can cite an exemption to the law that would bar its release. According to the First Amendment Foundation, there are now 1,159 exemptions. And lawmakers have introduced another 123 bills in this session to create new exemptions or extend current ones.
Bad enough that legislators are considering bills largely out of the public view that would suppress voting, prevent municipalities from adjusting police budgets and shield people from lawsuits who shoot or run over protesters deemed to be rioters. There are also proposals like HB 1207/SB 1488, which would bar the public from knowing if their elected state legislator lived in the district or had conflicts of interest because of their occupations or family members. Or HB 997/SB 220, which would shield the personal information of any applicant for president of a Florida college or university and withhold portions of meetings in which those applicants are vetted.
Given the access limits to this legislative session, there’s a good chance that bills like these will receive minimal public opposition in the committees that will vote on them.
Sunshine Week starts today, an annual recognition of the “government-in-the-sunshine” laws that set Florida apart from other states in helping their citizens better understand who runs their government, how well it operates and how taxpayer money is spent on state services and programs — all essential information necessary to build and retain the public’s trust.
Simply put, the public’s right to know continues to be under threat, and the recent restrictions to access to the legislative session are repugnant to the spirit of an open government.
Editorial written by The Palm Beach Post on behalf of the USA TODAY Network-Florida.