Don’t let Florida’s beloved moniker fool you. The elected leaders of the Sunshine State have steadily blacked out the windows, closed the blinds and dimmed the lights on Floridians’ ability to see how their money is spent, who’s pocketing it — and even where their governor goes and with whom.
Transparency is under threat in Florida and, therefore, so is good government and accountability.
Sunday marks the beginning of Sunshine Week, during which the media highlight just how precious is citizens’ ability to know what government is doing in their name — for good and for ill. The Miami Herald and several other McClatchy Co. newspapers are taking part.
In Florida, unfortunately, there’s more to lament than to celebrate. Now that the Legislature is in session, even more could be kept from public scrutiny — legally — if good-government advocates don’t kick and scream:
Current law, for instance, provides an exemption for portions of meetings of child-abuse death review committees at which exempt information is discussed, requiring that those closed portions of meetings be recorded. Senate Bill 370, however, would eliminate the recording requirement.
Then this: As the business-indebted legislators insist on shoveling mountains of public funds into private schools, prisons and hospitals, that money too often goes undercover and unaccounted for because there are few reporting mandates.
While state lawmakers are exempting their friends — and major campaign funding sources — some lawmakers on the federal level are exempting themselves having to operate in the open. Unlike candidates for most city councils, state legislatures, the U.S. House of Representatives — and even U.S. president — the vast majority of U.S. senators do not file their campaign-finance reports online. They don’t have to. Florida’s senators, Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, are among them. That’s a disappointment. At last count, 20 senators gave their constituents almost-immediate online access to the reports, the better to see who’s providing financial support — and to whom lawmakers might be beholden.
Thing is, online filing is only voluntary. The Senate has mandated that its members file reports on paper. So the majority continues to follow an old-school, tree-killing process: The Federal Elections Commission obtains senators’ voluminous paper reports, copies them and delivers them to a company in Virginia, where keypunchers type donor information into computers. Once that’s done — it can take awhile — the FEC puts the reports online.
The Commission estimates the laborious process costs taxpayers $500,000 a year, unnecessarily. Sen. Nelson’s office told the Herald that he “certainly isn’t adverse to filing financial disclosures electronically. He’s had the same campaign treasurer and finance folks for years and they’ve just always done it the old way.”
Sen. Rubio’s office said: “Senate Ethics mandates that all senators file their returns in person on paper. That is the rule.” He’s right. But the mandate to file on paper is misbegotten. Both Sens. Rubio and Nelson should come down solidly on the side of immediacy and push to make e-filing the rule. It would put important information in the sunshine at less cost — sooner rather than needlessly later.