Bring Legislature into the sunshine

Sep 21, 2009

Dan Gelber

Opinion Editorial: St. Petersburg Times


The Florida Legislature needs to bring greater scrutiny and accountability to the legislative process.

Currently, state legislators are treated much differently from local government officials with regard to the openness of their proceedings. For instance, if two members of a city council meet privately to discuss a city issue without noticing the public, they commit a crime and could go to jail. However, it is perfectly acceptable for two state legislators responsible for crafting the state budget to meet privately with a lobbyist to make sure that a client gets a sought-after change in the budget. I believe it is time to revisit this distinction and bring greater sunshine into the legislative process.

In the early 1990s, as various citizen forces and Florida's attorney general were pushing for increased oversight and transparency in government, legislative leaders negotiated a compromise that would impose lesser open government standards for the Legislature. Legislators argued that the nature of a 60-day session and the practicalities of noticing all communications between legislators made it impractical to apply the same notice requirements as those imposed on other levels of government. So interpretation of the meeting and records law was given solely to each legislative chamber rather than the courts, and the Legislature was not held to the same standards that are now expected of all other Florida governmental units.

I'm not convinced that given where we are today, the reasons used to exempt legislators from the sweep of open government rules makes sense. More and more we are hearing about secretive negotiations where the resolution of a major issue has been reached outside the purview of the media and the public. Many critical aspects of our budgetary process occur with little or no public scrutiny. It is commonplace, without any notice or public hearing, for last-minute amendments that help a privileged few to be slipped into bills. And when the amendment is overreaching, too often there is no remedy available for the public or the press.

Furthermore, Florida's budget is drafted in a manner that is impossible for everyday citizens to access and understand. Other states, like Tennessee, have created user-friendly systems that allow citizens to understand and follow the budgetary process, allowing for informed input and debate.

Floridians are losing respect for state government because increasingly it seems that many of their state officials are operating outside of scrutiny and the public interest. Although it might be easier to govern with limited citizen involvement, it is not better or healthier for a democracy. It is for that reason that Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, and I are proposing changing Florida's Constitution to bring more transparency and openness to Tallahassee. Here are some of the changes we will recommend to the Legislature and, ultimately, voters:

1. Require more open meetings when issues are discussed — especially budget issues. Do not allow more than two members of the Legislature to meet to take up budget issues without proper notice to the public in the same manner that local government officials must operate.

2. Require that appropriations bills be written in plain and user-friendly language and provide details so that any citizen can determine how their money is being spent.

3. Prohibit last-minute amendments from being considered in the Legislature except under rare and special circumstances. This would prevent much of the mischief that has too often negatively defined state government.

4. Give citizens a remedy if they believe the Legislature is failing to meet its constitutional burden of transparency by giving the judiciary the authority to hear challenges pertaining to open government in the Legislature.

I appreciate that many will raise the same arguments that were raised when the Legislature initially exempted itself from Florida's demanding open-government laws. Perhaps, if we had governed ourselves better in the nearly two decades since, such an argument should prevail. But regrettably most Floridians view state government as more beholden to special interests than the interests of everyday citizens. The only way to restore credibility and integrity to our state government is to shine the light of scrutiny upon it. This proposal is a good first step.

Dan Gelber is a state senator representing parts of Miami-Dade and Broward and is a Democratic candidate for attorney general.




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