In the hyper-partisan Florida Legislature, Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on much, but every year they work agreeably to extend public records exemptions and create new ones.
The session that ends Friday will continue the trend toward greater secrecy in a state that prides itself on citizen access to information, known as government in the sunshine.
The 2013 Legislature will close off public access to the email addresses of voters as well as the names of spouses and children of law enforcement officers, corrections officers and child abuse and revenue investigators.
“It’s not that complicated,” said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who sponsored the bill to shield names of family members, saying it is needed to protect the loved ones of public safety workers from stalkers or vengeful lawbreakers.
“There are all kinds of perpetrators of evil out there, and this is just an effort to build that wall,” said Hays, who could not recall where he got the idea to propose the bill.
Hays’ bill (SB 376) will also shield the names of spouses of some employees of the state health and child welfare agencies.
The First Amendment Foundation, a watchdog group backed by many of the state’s newspapers, called Hays’ bill “bad public policy,” noting that the affected family members’ addresses, workplaces and schools are now confidential under state law.
Foundation President Barbara Petersen cited a case in which a questionable state contract given to the wife of a state agency head became public only because the spouse’s name was public.
“Exempting such information from the public eye effectively eliminates public oversight and governmental accountability,” Petersen told Hays.
Hays’ bill illustrates how a growing number of legislators pay little heed to the First Amendment Foundation’s warnings.
The bill sped through both chambers with barely a whimper of opposition. After passing the House, 107-4, and the Senate, 38-0, it is headed to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk for his likely signature.
Lawmakers also will repeal a requirement that recordings be kept of confidential meetings of child abuse death review teams in Florida, and will make secret checks and money orders held by the state agency that regulates banks and credit unions.
The state Constitution requires a two-thirds vote by both the Senate and House to enact any new exemption to the public records law.
Because Democrats make up slightly more than a third of the members of both houses, they have the power to block new exemptions, but it has happened just once this session.
House Democrats such as Rep. Mark Danish of Tampa sharply criticized a bill that would keep confidential as “trade secrets” the chemicals used in a process known as fracking, the hydraulic fracturing of the ground used in oil and gas exploration.
“So many things are going to be trade secrets, we’re going to find out that all we have is water going into the ground,” Danish said. “We need a full understanding of the environmental impact of fracking.”
Other criticism followed, and Republicans shelved the bill (HB 745) rather than risk its defeat by Democrats. It’s likely dead for this session.
The First Amendment Foundation was unsuccessful in its efforts to block a bill that would keep secret the email addresses of voters. Supporters say their goal is to reduce paper costs by encouraging voters to get sample ballots over the Internet.
Petersen scoffed at the official legislative rationale for HB 249, to reduce voter fraud. But the measure, supported by county elections supervisors, has overwhelming bipartisan support, with many lawmakers saying the need to protect voters from spam and political email outweighed the case for disclosure.
“It’s always a balancing act to balance individuals’ privacy from a bombardment of unwanted and unwelcome spam and email,” said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. “Their email addresses are suddenly out there in the public domain and all they did was try to participate in the electoral process.”
The First Amendment Foundation also opposes bills that would keep secret applications for jobs in the state college and university system and materials insurance companies will submit to a homeowners insurance clearinghouse program.
Petersen said that several years ago, the House Democratic Caucus would invite her to speak at caucus meetings on why certain exemptions were bad policy.
“That no longer happens,” she said. “For the most part, these bills simply sail through the process.”