‘An excuse to make it harder for everyday citizens to have their voices heard’

Florida Capitol
The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo, Colin Hackley

In Florida and states across the country, a cornerstone of creating state laws comes with a major component: Citizen input.

But against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic, the Florida Legislature has been offering limited options for public testimony at legislative meetings, and myriad advocacy groups are deeply concerned and even livid.

“For the GOP leaders of the Florida Legislature to use the pandemic as an excuse to make it harder for everyday citizens to have their voices heard in the legislative process is undemocratic, un-American, and indefensible, Mark Ferrulo, Progress Florida’s executive director, said in a written statement to the Florida Phoenix.

“Instead of an intense focus on ending the rising death toll and economic hardships caused by COVID-19, we see instead our state leaders working to give corporations immunity from COVID-19 lawsuits, criminalize peaceful protests, and pass unpopular abortion bans,” Ferrulo wrote. “These are the wrong priorities even in the best of times, and to use COVID as an excuse to silence citizens who want to participate in the democratic process and defeat these proposals is shameful.”

Dozens of groups are now pushing for expanded access for legislative meetings, and transparency in the overall process that could affect their lives, from issues ranging from reproductive rights to criminal justice and health care.

The 2021 Florida Legislature convenes March 2, and lawmakers have been attending committee meetings prior to opening day of the session.

Last week, Common Cause Florida along with more than 30 organizations sent a letter to the Florida Senate President, House Speaker and Democratic leaders, urging them to “ensure that the remaining committee weeks and 2021 legislative session have structures and systems in place to ensure accountability and an open, accessible, and transparent process that allows for meaningful input from the public.”

“After reviewing the public testimony protocols set forth by the Florida House and Senate, we are deeply concerned about government transparency and public oversight, particularly the lack of an option for the public to participate remotely and/or virtually,” the letter states.

“Recognizing that further adjustments to the plan may occur, we want to ensure advocates and the public have a vehicle for meaningful participation in the process moving forward. Transparency and accountability in the legislative process is critical to the public trust.”

Among the groups who signed the Common Cause letter are: Florida ACLU, Florida AFL-CIO, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, League of Women Voters of Florida, Progress Florida, Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, and the Florida Policy Institute.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the public must gather at the Civic Center in Tallahassee to address committees through video, raising concerns about equal access for residents across the state who wish to participate in the legislative process.

The Common Cause letter is requesting efforts such as eliminating technological barriers that limit accessibility for some, including closed captioning services, simultaneous language translation, and/or ASL interpreters and providing an option to participate in the hearing by teleconference.

In addition, “people should have the ability to sign up to testify online. Those individuals then should receive a window of time in which they can expect to testify,” the letter states.

And, “people wishing to testify at public hearings should have the ability to testify via teleconference or videoconference and respond to questions in real time.”

Previously, state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, chair of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, addressed the issue of remote testimony in the Florida Senate in a letter to state Sen. Perry Thurston, a Democrat representing part of Broward County.

Discussions are underway about adding “additional remote venues or virtual testimony options,” Passidomo said in the letter.

Passidomo added that Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson “will establish a working group…to explore additional ways to facilitate public participation in the legislative process.”

“Public testimony is currently permitted at the Civic Center. Other options suggested by Senator Thurston will be reviewed by the working group during the interim,” Florida Senate spokeswoman Katherine Betta said in an email to the Phoenix.