From temporarily shielding the identities of murder witnesses to permanently sealing millions of criminal and arrest records, state lawmakers did more this spring than they have in all but one of the past 22 years to chip away at Floridians’ constitutional guarantees to access government records and observe meetings of their elected officials.
The Legislature passed 17 new provisions — and reauthorized six others — that create carve-outs in the state’s Sunshine Law, according to a tally by the First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit organization that advocates for transparency in government and has annually tracked Sunshine-related legislation.
The number of exemptions this year is the second-most since 1995 — five fewer than the record 22 exemptions lawmakers passed in 2014, said Barbara Petersen, president of the foundation, of which the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are members.
“Every exemption that’s created is an exception to the Florida Constitution,” Petersen said, calling the trend “very disturbing.”
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Consistent with past years, all of this year’s new exemptions passed both chambers on unanimous or near-unanimous votes. Many still await approval from Gov. Rick Scott on whether they should become law.
“It seems in this Legislature, they can’t agree on medical marijuana, they can’t agree on major issues — but they can agree on impeding the public’s right to oversight,” Petersen said.
Among the new exemptions approved, SB 118 could virtually eliminate Floridians’ access to many individuals’ criminal histories.
If Scott signs it into law, it would require clerks to seal more than 2.7 million criminal records and hundreds of thousands of arrest records for individuals who were found not guilty, acquitted at trial, had charges against them dropped or dismissed, or weren’t charged after being arrested.
[Lawmakers] can’t agree on major issues — but they can agree on impeding the public’s right to oversight.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation
Bill sponsor and Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube said the proposal would remove a stigma for people who aren’t convicted in a court of law, but the First Amendment Foundation wants Scott to veto it on the grounds that it “constitutes a significant threat to the public safety.”
In a letter to Scott, Petersen wrote that one consequence would be that employers couldn’t check the criminal history of job candidates — for instance, an applicant seeking employment at a daycare center who might have been charged, but not convicted, multiple times for criminal acts against a child.
Scott has already signed one major exemption into law this spring, among a few others he’s also signed — HB 111, which prevents murder witnesses’ identities from being released in public records for two years after the crime.
The new law, effective July 1, was propelled and lauded by Miami-Dade lawmakers and residents. They hope it will encourage witnesses to speak up and help curb unsolved murders in the county, many of which stem from neighborhood gun violence.
“Thank you to Governor Scott for recognizing the importance of this bill for the families of the victims,” bill sponsor and Miami Democratic Rep. Cynthia Stafford said in a statement after Scott signed the legislation earlier this month. “I am proud that we were able to give our law enforcement personnel another valuable tool ... as we seek to end the ‘stop snitching’ culture and deliver justice to the victims of these horrific crimes.”
The high number of exemptions this year came in a session when House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, set high expectations by pledging to “set a record for openness and transparency.”
Many observers, including Petersen, say Corcoran failed to live up to that promise, because budget negotiations were shrouded in secrecy and the House, in particular, advanced several highly consequential Sunshine exemptions that — although many didn’t pass — sought to gut the spirit of the Constitution’s open government guarantees.
One unsuccessful far-reaching exemption would have let two local elected officials meet in secret about government business without having to let the public know or having to disclose what they discussed. HB 843 made it to the House floor, where it failed in an unprecedented outcome.
The vote marked the first time lawmakers rejected a Sunshine exemption since a higher threshold for approving them was passed by voters 15 years ago. The bill, sponsored by Naples Republican Rep. Byron Donalds, still earned a simple majority — 68-48 — but since 2002, such legislation requires a two-thirds’ majority to pass, so it failed. (It would have likely stalled this session regardless, because the Senate never took up a companion measure.)
When asked how the large number of exemptions this year reflects on the Legislature given Corcoran’s pledge of transparency, Corcoran spokesman Fred Piccolo said in a statement to the Herald/Times: “The Speaker has been the biggest advocate for openness and transparency in the state and was praised for his efforts at the First Amendment Foundation annual luncheon.”
Petersen last week, however, was heavily critical of Corcoran — calling his promise of openness “baloney” in hindsight. She also noted that under Corcoran’s leadership with Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, this year’s budget was crafted in “one of the least transparent processes I’ve ever seen” in her 25 years in Tallahassee.
“These were major policy decisions being made in secret. That’s not typical at all — and it’s very bothersome,” she said of the budget. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” (Because of the lack of openness, the First Amendment Foundation is calling for Scott to veto the main budget act.)
When it came to the new Sunshine exemptions approved this year, Piccolo said Corcoran “believes in common sense.”
“A large number of the exemptions that passed simply related to protecting the health and safety of the the public,” Piccolo said. “Such things as: keeping confidential the information of an unborn child who is lost before birth, protecting the ID of a witness to a murder or the ID of a victim of sexual harassment.”
Negron was unavailable for comment Monday. His spokeswoman Katie Betta noted that of the new and re-enacted exemptions this year, the First Amendment Foundation formally opposed only three, including HB 111 and SB 118, and was “neutral” on the rest.