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Watchdog Group Tracking Fla. Bills That Would Make Government More, Less Open

With the Florida Legislative session a month away, some bills are being shaped in committees while others may never make it to a committee floor. But a watchdog group is already releasing its watchlist of legislation that it says could make government more open or more hidden.

The Florida Constitution guarantees the right to access records of official government business and meetings. It’s the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation’s mission to protect that right. Foundation president Barbara Petersen said, government transparency doesn’t benefit one political party or ideology over another.

“It doesn’t matter your politics, it doesn’t matter your issues. Environmentalists, the Tea Party nation, the League of Women Voters; everybody needs access to good government information, and the only way we can get that is through our good open-government laws,” she said.

Her group is keeping its eye on the bills filed so far this session: “Any bill that affects open government in any way, whether making it worse, making better…most of them make it worse.”

She said, the worst of the worst so far is a bill filed by Rep. Holly Raschein (R-Key West). It would make the financial records of companies that are bidding on state contracts exempt from public record. Petersen said, the public should be able to verify these things for themselves.

“We want to make sure that government is entering into contracts with financially sound companies, and we would not have the opportunity to make that determination independently if these records are exempt from public disclosure,” she said.

But Raschein said, she wants to increase the size of the applicant pool when the government is looking for a new bridge builder or road paver. And she’s afraid that requiring financial information to be public is scaring off potential bidders. 

“I just think it may keep really qualified companies, the best of the best, from contracting with the state because they don’t want their innards, so to speak, all blazoned across the public waves,” she said.

Raschein said, companies’ records will become public as soon as a they win a contract anyway, so there’s no reason to let competitors know each other’s finances. She said, she’s still taking input on the measure, and the bill hasn’t been slated for a committee hearing.

First Amendment Foundation’s Petersen said, a couple of other bills are raising red flags too. One is a measure that would exempt registered voters’ e-mail addresses from public record. She said, that one’s a slippery slope.

“There have been attempts in the past to exempt all e-mail addresses that are held by a government agency,” she said. “E-mail addresses can be critically important to see who’s corresponding with whom.”

And another would exempt law enforcement officers’ spouses’ names from public record.

On the other hand, some bills would make government more open, she said. One would guarantee a member of the public the right to speak at public meetings. Another requires school boards to meet in the evening to make it possible for the highest number of parents to attend.

Finally, there’s the bill Petersen is calling “phenomenally wonderful.” It’s sponsored by Sen. Eleanor Sobel (D- Hollywood) and Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami), and it would shine more light on economic incentives the state pays companies to relocate to Florida.

Rodriguez said, “There’s not enough transparency related to these programs. And that’s extremely important because if we’re gonna have these as development strategies, we need to know what our return on investment is.”

He’s proposing that the state come up with better metrics to measure whether companies are creating the jobs or economic growth they promised when they accepted grants, rebates or tax breaks. And their progress would be tracked, publicly, in real time, online.

The bill also puts the details of the states’ deals with private companies into public record automatically unless the company can justify why it’s sensitive information that should be kept secret. Rodriguez said, that means businesses that aren’t getting incentives would be able to check on their competitors that are, and see what they’re doing to create jobs.