Legislature dims Florida's sunshine laws
By The Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. The sunshine dimmed on open records laws in Florida this legislative session.
State lawmakers passed 15 bills creating new exemptions to the public-records laws, routinely met in secret, and approved legislation so quickly some members didn't know what they were voting on.
"I haven't had a session like this since the early 1990s," said Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit, open-records watchdog organization.
Lawmakers proposed 134 bills in the Florida Legislature this year affecting Florida's public-records laws, up 62% from last year. Petersen said the 15 new exemptions should give Floridians a reason to be concerned. Under state law, there must be a proven necessity to keep records private a standard that several bills did not meet, she said.
The most publicized measure already the subject of two lawsuits limits public access to autopsy photos. The bill, initiated at the request of NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt's widow, was introduced, voted on and signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush in three weeks.
Many of the other measures exempting records from the state constitution passed through committees and the full chambers without any debate.
That bothered freshman Rep. John Carassas, R-Largo, who said he voted for the autopsy measure with reservations but grew concerned when he saw other exemptions flying through committees with little consideration from his colleagues. He said each exemption should be examined on its own merits.
"The state constitution has an open-records provision in it and I don't think we should be making exemptions unless there's a darn good reason," said Carassas.
One measure (SB 1200) of particular concern to Petersen exempts all information about anything wrong that goes on in a nursing home and keeps it confidential after an investigation is complete.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said the incident reports should be kept secret to encourage nursing homes to report wrongdoing.
But Petersen said the facilities are already required to report adverse incidents, and lawmakers should see to it that laws already on the books are enforced instead of creating exemptions.
"What our legislators don't seem to understand is that with every exemption they're creating an exception to the constitution," Petersen said.
Carassas was troubled by a bill (CS/SB 1562) that exempts records given to the state by tobacco companies under Florida's $13 billion settlement with cigarette makers in 1997.
"We have a settlement agreement with the tobacco companies and they're obligated to give us accurate information under that settlement," he said. "If they're paying the state of Florida based on this information, why shouldn't the public have that information available?"
House Speaker Tom Feeney conceded that number of exemptions was "probably too many," but said the closed meetings between lawmakers were justified.
Democrats and newspaper editorial writers criticized Republican leaders for holding closed-door meetings to discuss issues ranging from the state budget to financing for a new Florida Marlins ballpark.
"We have probably the most open sunshine laws in the country," said Feeney, R-Oviedo. "But you can go too far and create complete chaos and inability for people to have candid private discussions if you require every part of the relationship between members and the executive branch and their constituents to be on the record."
Gov. Bush was criticized for giving the press notice of meetings with lawmakers via e-mail as the meetings were taking place. By the time reporters arrived, the meetings had already ended.
Katie Baur, Bush's spokeswoman, said no rules were broken in the way in which notice was given. "There comes a time when government comes to a standstill by these ridiculous interpretations of the law," she said.
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