Bill Would Shine Sun On State Government

Mar 15, 2010

The Associated Press

The Tampa Tribune

TALLAHASSEE - The grand jury that indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom expressed itself clearly on the matter of openness and transparency in the legislative sausage-making known as the final budget process.

At issue: the last stage of the assembly line, where leaders of the House and Senate appropriations committees can privately decide what goes in and what comes out.

"The procedure currently in place requires that our elected legislators vote on a final budget that they have no knowledge about because it is finalized in a meeting between only two legislators ...," the panel said 11 months ago. "Your grand jurors recommend to the Legislature that it clean up this process and that the state of Florida become an example to the nation."

Hope for reform

As Florida's news media observed "Sunshine Sunday," a joint effort examining how the state's open government laws are being followed and changed, advocates of open government are pinning their hopes on several bills before the Legislature this session. That includes a proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution that supporters say would go a long way toward eliminating the back-room deals that for decades have contaminated state budget writing.

"Combined, if we got the really good bills passed, it would represent the biggest reform in open government since the enactment of the public records law in 1909," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit group that lobbies for open government.

Banning backroom deals

Attracting the most attention is a constitutional amendment (HJR 241) proposed by Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, and Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, that would outlaw private discussions by members of budget and other conference committees about issues those committees are considering. It also would restrict the amending of bills during a session's final days and permit Circuit Court challenges of House or Senate rules regarding access to legislative meetings or documents.

"Seven thumbs up on this one," Petersen said. "It's one of the best bills I've seen in quite some time."

She and others say the Sansom case, generally considered the ugliest episode in Florida's recent legislative history, had one positive aspect: It spotlighted a problem that has festered in the shadows.

The Sansom factor

The grand jury charged Sansom, a Republican from Destin, with official misconduct for allegedly slipping into the state budget a last-minute $6 million appropriation to build an airport hangar sought by a friend and political donor. A judge later dismissed the major element of the official misconduct charge and part of a perjury charge, but Sansom now faces grand theft and conspiracy charges related to the same appropriation. He resigned his House seat last month.

"If there's any year that it would get passed because of the impact shame can have on political will, this is the year," said Gelber, who is running for attorney general.

Petersen said Gelber has championed open government for years and the issue transcends election-year politics.

"The Sansom problem was business as usual," she said, "but people aren't aware that it's business as usual, and when they learn that it is, they're outraged by it."

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