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Open Government Takes A Hit But It Seems Little Can Be Done

The House GOP meet behind closed doors earlier this week.
Vinay Nair via Flickr

The House GOP met behind closed doors Tuesday to discuss their strategy regarding a possible expansion of Medicaid.  The move has raised the ire of the Democrats and open government advocates, but it seems there’s very little that can be done.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R-Merritt Island) says the House Republican caucus met Tuesday morning to discuss the history of LIP, or low income pool funding.

“Really more than anything it was a history lesson,” he said, “explaining to our members what we have behind us.”

The Senate had a similar meeting.

“We had a really good presentation,” Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) said.  “It was good to kind of go through the history of LIP and for everybody to understand how we got to where we are.”

On the House side they had documents

“That is a compilation of information that we’ve done over time, and we have now put it all together for them so that they have information,” Crisafulli said.

So did the Senate.

“I believe y’all have been provided some of the packets?” Gardiner asked.

So what’s the difference?  Well, for one, seating.  At the outset of the Senate meeting, Brandon Republican Tom Lee invited the public to pile into the committee chambers for their presentation.  But House lawmakers limited their meeting to Republicans and they held it behind closed doors—which Barbara Petersen explains, would seem to violate Florida’s Sunshine Amendment. 

“Article III, section 4(e), that says all prearranged meetings of three or more legislators who are meeting for the purpose of taking formal legislative action or discussing pending legislation, must be reasonably open to the public,” Petersen says.

She’s President of an advocacy organization for open government called the First Amendment Foundation.  But Crisafulli insists their meeting is on the up-and-up, just a history lesson, no substantive policy discussions.

“We did give them a background, however, on LIP and Medicaid expansion,” Crisafulli said, “and what’s going on in the Senate and what we have done in the past here in the house and what we expect in the future.”

And while some might reasonably say that sounds an awful lot like a policy discussion, Petersen points out there’s just one problem.

“Unfortunately, that constitutional right of access is subject to the sole interpretation, implementation and enforcement by each chamber,” Petersen says.

And House Democrats left out of the meeting are unhappy, too.  Rep. Amanda Murphy (R-New Port Richey) believes the closed meeting was a Sunshine violation, but she agrees there’s very little her caucus can do about it.   Most of all though, she says the reasons Republicans have given publicly for holding the meeting don’t make sense.

“When they are supposed to be giving lots of information it would’ve helped for maybe some of us to be invited,” she says. 

“If they’re so concerned, and want their opinion out there, why not invite the press and let the whole state understand what they seem to understand about LIP that the rest of us are missing?” she asks.

That’s because the meeting appears to be less of a history lesson and more of a half-time speech or—perhaps for some members—a trip to the woodshed.  Although lawmakers met out of sight, numerous media outlets have reported overhearing Crisafulli telling his fellow Republicans to “trust us” and “stand like a rock” against the Senate’s plan to accept federal money and expand Medicaid.  But holding fast as Crisafulli encourages will likely lead to a special session.

Nick Evans came to Tallahassee to pursue a masters in communications at Florida State University. He graduated in 2014, but not before picking up an internship at WFSU. While he worked on his degree Nick moved from intern, to part-timer, to full-time reporter. Before moving to Tallahassee, Nick lived in and around the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. He listens to far too many podcasts and is a die-hard 49ers football fan. When Nick’s not at work he likes to cook, play music and read.