Florida once reveled in the title of Sunshine State because it adhered faithfully to the code of open government, thanks to a constitutional amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1992.
Unfortunately, that’s no longer true. Today, that lofty aspiration is more honored in the breach than in the observance.
Florida has fallen behind many other states in this vital measure of how well a government serves its citizens. A report card on the states released last year by U.S. PIRG, an association of state public interest research groups, gave Florida a grade of 59 out of 100 on transparency, a failure by any measure.
Barbara A. Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Tallahassee, notes that Florida received “a miserable D-plus for access to government information” in yet another national ranking of states.
It’s not hard to see that there’s a link between these sad grades and a finding by the Public Integrity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice that Florida leads the nation in public corruption, based on the number of officials convicted of such crimes since 2000.
State legislators should be embarrassed. There is no good reason for their inability to live up to Florida’s reputation for strong open government. The laws remain on the books — the state gets high marks for laws guaranteeing access to public records — but the state lags in enforcement and effective access.
Among the key problems are these:
• No state official is responsible for enforcing the right of access.
• The cost of getting records can be prohibitive — a deliberate tactic to discourage access.
• Too many exceptions are made to avoid compliance. A number of pending bills — among them, a measure to shield decision-making information regarding Citizens Property Insurance — would make matters worse.
The GOP-led Legislature should plug all these loopholes and make it easier for Florida’s citizens to have access to public information as promised in the state Constitution.
An earlier generation of voters and lawmakers enshrined government transparency as a public ideal. Floridians today want and deserve as much. The lawmakers they elected should help the Sunshine State restore its reputation as a champion of open government.