Florida lawmakers failing open government

This editorial originally published in the Sun Sentinel June 28, 2017, and was written by the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board.

 

If you’ve ever wondered how seriously state legislators value your constitutional right to open government, you can thank the Florida Society of News Editors for bringing it out in the sunshine.

The problem is worse than we thought.

The FSNE unveiled its first Sunshine scorecard last week, grading all 160 legislators against their votes on public record bills that Florida’s Amendment Foundation either supported or opposed.

Not a single state lawmaker received an A. Only nine had a B. There were 71 Cs — which is considered average. And half of the legislators received a subpar grade, with 77 Ds and three Fs.

Florida might have the nation’s most robust open government laws, but they’re clearly under assault by our lawmakers. The public should be outraged, especially after a legislative session in which much of our budget and policy was decided behind closed doors.

For decades, Florida has been the country’s shining example of how to keep politicians honest. We’re one of the few states that guarantee open government in the state constitution. And Florida takes it a step further, requiring the Legislature to pass bills for exemptions. In theory, that should keep lawmakers from gutting the Sunshine Law.

But legislators have continued pecking away at openness.

Florida’s Sunshine Law now has nearly 1,200 exemptions. Under the guise of privacy issues, state officials have hid details about children killed in foster care, seniors killed in nursing homes, and prisoners killed while locked up.

Lawmakers have hidden from the public how much taxpayer money is given to companies for incentives and how much vendors are paid by contract.

This year, the Legislature tried to put a giant dagger in the Sunshine Law by allowing two or more elected officials from the same governmental body to speak about official business privately — away from the public. More than half of the Florida House voted for it, but state law fortunately requires two-thirds of the Legislature to vote for Sunshine Law exemptions. That one didn’t pass, but plenty supported for it, including eight lawmakers from Broward and Palm Beach counties.

If that wasn’t enough of an eye opener, the Sunshine scorecard makes it clear that not enough politicians care about your right to open government.

“I’m getting some really interesting responses (to the scorecard),” Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board. “People are asking ‘when are you going to score the courts?’ People are paying attention to it and the legislators seem to be paying attention to it as well.”

Neither party fared well on the scorecard but Republicans especially struggled — the most common grade for Democrats was a C-minus while more of the GOP scored a D-plus.

No South Florida Republican scored higher than a C and most were D-plus or lower. While four Broward and Palm Beach County Democrats scored B-minus or B-plus, many had Ds.

It’s unacceptable. Florida needs to return to its roots as a state that prides itself on open government.

Petersen admits the scoring system isn’t perfect. No one received an A because a single bill that was opposed by the First Amendment Foundation passed unanimously. That bill shielded the arrest records of people who are found innocent in court. The First Amendment Foundation was right to oppose it.

“If a person is accused of sexual assault in four counties, but not convicted, it shows a pattern of criminal behavior,” Petersen said earlier this year.

It also wipes away the arrest records of public figures like Casey Anthony and George Zimmerman who were exonerated in court but remain suspicious in the public eye.

Expect changes to next year’s scorecard to give credit to lawmakers who helped improve bills the First Amendment Foundation initially opposed.

“This had never been done before and of course there are some little kinks that need to be worked out,” Petersen said.

The Sunshine scorecard will only improve, and we’re fortunate to have a transparent tool that keeps politicians honest. Now it’s on them to prove they care about your right to an open government.

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