By Aaron Deslatte, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
TALLAHASSEE — A year after passing sweeping reforms on political lobbying and conflicts-of-interests, proposals to impose even stronger ethical requirements on politicians are languishing in the Florida Legislature.
An eclectic group of organizations, including the First Amendment Foundation, Common Cause and the Tea Party Network, held a press conference Wednesday to urge lawmakers in the final two weeks of session to pass proposals to allow the public greater access to meetings and records, banning local officials from lobbying on behalf of other clients, and mandating that elected officials live in their districts.
All three bills have stalled out in the Florida House.
First Amendment Foundation President Barbara Petersen, whose organization lobbies for public access to records and meetings on behalf of media organizations, said this year has been one of the worst in terms of the Legislature passing new exemptions to Florida’s broad constitutional amendment guaranteeing public access to government.
In 1985, Florida had about 250 exemptions to the public records law, while today there are nearly 11,000. The Legislature is poised to pass between 18 and 25 new exemptions this year, she said.
“It’s a concern to us that the Legislature is willing to create all these exceptions to the constitutional right to access,” Petersen said.
The Senate has already passed its version. The bill, HB 1151 sponsored by Rep. Dave Hood Jr., R-Daytona Beach Shores, would clarify that governments don’t have to require public records requests to be in writing, and would force private contractors to notify public agencies when they receive public records requests and before they deny them. It would also set new limits on how much government agencies could charge the public to produce public records.
Petersen called it the most sweeping attempt to improve Florida’s open-records law in years.
“Reform is critically important to us,” she said.
But other groups, such as Integrity Florida and Common Cause, also want to see lawmakers push through two bills championed by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, which would extend lobbying bans and residency requirements lawmakers have placed on themselves to local governments.
THe lobbying ban bill, SB 846, has cleared the Senate while the residency bill, SB 602, is slated for a floor vote. Both have stalled in the House, even though House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, jointed put the ethics reform issues on their “work plan” agenda this year.
“Our coalition is united in calling on the Florida House to prioritize and approve these good government reform measures,” Integrity Florida Executive Director Dan Krassner said.
Last year, lawmakers passed a ban on former legislators lobbying executive branch agencies for two years after leaving office – a move prompted after former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, began setting up his lobbying firm before he left office.
This spring, both the House and Senate have passed rules setting the definition for “residency” and requiring lawmakers to live within the districts they were elected to serve – already a legal requirement, but one some lawmakers have gotten around by renting apartments in the districts without ever actually living there.