The “sun” may be getting dimmer in the Sunshine State.
The Florida Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill (SB 200) that exempts from public records disclosure any email address used by tax collectors to send tax notices.
It’s one of at least 60 efforts introduced this legislative session to close more state-held information to public view.
Open government advocates say many proposed exemptions are common sense, such as exempting identifying information of members of the military’s special operations units.
Others, though, don’t add up, they say.
The email-address bill’s sponsor, Republican Jack Latvala of Clearwater, fears that swindlers could use addresses “for identity theft, taxpayer scams, and other invasive contacts.” Latvala has said he’s trying to stop a problem before it starts.
The First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group, opposed the measure. Barbara Petersen, the organization’s president, has said there’s no evidence of that specific misuse of addresses to merit the exemption.
The bigger issue for Petersen is the slippery slope created with each new exemption. Exceptions to the Sunshine Laws have risen from 250 in 1985 to about 1,100 today.
A “sunset” provision allows for exemptions to expire after five years unless renewed, and most are.
“The public availability of personal e-mail addresses invites and exacerbates thriving and well-documented criminal activities and puts taxpayers at increased risk of harm,” Latvala said in the bill.
“Such harm would be significantly curtailed by allowing a tax collector to preserve the confidentiality of taxpayer e-mail addresses,” he added.
Petersen said creating an exemption for public information does not protect people from crime.
“If I want to scam people or defraud them, will I be more likely to make a public record request for email addresses held by tax collectors or will I simply (use) the web?” she said. An exemption for email addresses “will not protect people from those who want to defraud them.”
Rather than making public records private, “our government needs to do more — much more — to educate consumers in how to protect themselves and their personal information,” Petersen added.
Pinellas County Tax Collector Diane Nelson said she went to Latvala with the idea for the bill.
Nelson, a 45-year veteran of the office including 14 as the elected officeholder, said she understands the need for openness. Still, she said she’s “going to protect the taxpayer first.”
Nelson said she’s not aware of any scam using email addresses from Florida tax collectors – but doesn’t want her customers to be the first such victims.
“You gave me that email address; you entrusted me with it,” she said, referring to Pinellas taxpayers. “I don’t want to wait when I know there’s cyberfraud out there. We saw what happened with Target.”
The Target and Neiman Marcus retail chains suffered high-profile data breaches in late 2013 and early 2014, resulting in the release of millions of credit card numbers.
Latvala’s bill now heads to the House, where a companion bill (HB 179) has been cleared for the floor.
Other secrecy measures moving in the Legislature include one that would make secret all searches for public college and university presidents.
That measure (SB 182) is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Rules committee this Thursday.
Now, searches are open under the Sunshine Laws; the names of candidates and their resumes are public record, for instance, and meetings about the hiring process are open to the public.
Bill sponsor Alan Hays, an Umatilla Republican, would exempt candidates’ identifying information and closes initial interviews and related meetings from public view.
Meetings on how much the position will pay and the list of finalists would remain public.
Through open searches, it became known then-state Sen. John Thrasher was interested in becoming Florida State University’s president – a job he eventually got.
The public also was able to discover that state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater had applied for the presidency of Florida Atlantic University.
Hays said many qualified candidates don’t apply because they fear their job will be threatened if their current employer finds out they’re interested in moving on.
“I’m not trying to make everything secretive,” Hays said. “We’re just trying to make sure we have the deepest quality pool of applicants we can get.”
Original article here.