Lawmakers this spring passed legislation to keep information secret from the public, even though open meetings and public records have been a cornerstone of Florida’s “government-in-the-sunshine” laws for decades.
The bills this legislative session created 11 new exemptions in open government laws and reenacted 14 exemptions already on the books. The new bills would add to more than 1,110 exemptions already in the law.
That’s a total of 25 bills designed to restrict the public’s “constitutional right to access,’’ says Barbara Petersen, president of the nonprofit First Amendment Foundation in the state capital.
And those 25 bills make up about 14 percent of the major bills passed by the Legislature this spring. “It’s never been this high,” says Petersen, whose foundation was tracking legislation throughout the session.
The exemptions this legislative session relate to everything from home addresses and property descriptions to certain criminal records and voter information, as well as public utility records and toll collections. Gov. Ron DeSantis must approve or veto the bills, and he’s already signed some of them, according to the governor’s office.
“Not one good bill passed,” said Petersen, referring to comprehensive reforms that would bolster transparency in government.
Instead, lawmakers have chipped away at the public’s right to know about their elected officials, public meetings and information that holds government accountable and staves off corruption.
Petersen says there were some bright spots during the session:
Lawmakers didn’t pass a bill that would exempt the names of certain foster parents. The foundation had been opposed to widespread exempting of names of foster parents who are licensed and paid by the state to take care of vulnerable foster children.
Lawmakers also didn’t pass legislation to exempt the names of applicants for presidents or provosts at state universities and colleges – even though Florida has long hired such top academic officials without hiding their names.
Opponents of the exemptions say that the names of applicants, as well as their credentials, qualifications and accomplishments, is pertinent public information in academic job searches.