As legislative session begins, lawmakers should put brawls on the back burner

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, answers reporters’ questions after the 2015 session. He now is House speaker. )
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, answers reporters’ questions after the 2015 session. He now is House speaker. ) AP

When the 2017 session of the Florida Legislature opens on Tuesday, the stage will be set for two major battles on the floor of the Republican-controlled Capitol chamber.

Out in the sunshine for all to see is the battle of wills between Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a lawyer from Land O’Lakes.

Their battle royal is over how much taxpayer money the state should spend to attract companies and jobs and tourists via the state’s two marketing agencies: Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida. Spending scandals have recently rocked both agencies.

Scott, who sees the agencies’ work going hand-in-hand with his jobs initiative, defends Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida; Corcoran is ruthless in his criticism of both as examples of “corporate welfare.” We give the governor the edge here. Both agencies have shown their value, and both can commit to improving how they conduct business. There’s definitely room for compromise here.

Neither Scott nor Corcoran should allow their hissy fit to derail discussion on other top priorities for this session, such as coming up with a long-term land-buying plan to get fresh water to the Florida Everglades, implementing legalized medical marijuana laws, rewriting juvenile-justice laws, fixing a flawed death penalty system, pusnig back against broader gun rights, gambling, taxes and how to cut up the state’s $84 billion budget.

Less visible, however, is the battle to save Florida’s Sunshine Law, which will be celebrated March 12-18 as part of Sunshine Week, sponsored by the First Amendment Foundation, along with hundreds of media organizations, including the Miami Herald and others that believe in the importance of an open government.

Florida’s Sunshine Law is the oldest state-level open-government law in the country, a thing of beauty in providing citizens the right to public records. Florida lawmakers should be proud of that distinction. Instead, they have been chipping away at it — and they are expected to bring their hammers and chisels to Tallahassee again. Floridians should be aware and outraged.

The Florida Public Records Law, created in 1909 to guarantee a citizen’s right to open government, says that “it is the policy of this state that all state, county, and municipal records shall at all times be open for a personal inspection by any person.” When the government refuses to comply with a public record request, a citizen’s only real recourse is to go to court.

Here are two crucial bills that threaten the spirit of the Sunshine Law:

▪ House Bill 843, introduced by State Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples. The bill would allow two members of any county commission or board consisting of more than five members to meet in private. That would signal a huge violation of current law, where any side meeting of any members is prohibited.

Barbara Petersen, of the First Amendment Foundation, says this would allow “daisy chaining” by members of a board. For example, she says, Commissioner A and Commissioner B meet in private; Commissioner B then meets with Commissioner C and so on, all coming to some sort of consensus.

“To say this obliterates our right to oversee government and hold it accountable is an understatement,” Petersen said. Absolutely.

▪ Senate Bill 80, introduced by State Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, is even more chilling. It seeks committee approval next week on a bill that gives judges discretion on whether to reimburse attorney fees for people who successfully prove the government has illegally withheld public records. This vindictive bill should die in the vine.