House Republicans met behind closed doors for a “history lesson” on health care budgeting Tuesday, but Speaker Steve Crisafulli and top legislative leaders insisted their caucus was not a violation of Florida’s public-meeting laws.
“One thing that makes this place work is, we have to be able to talk to each other a little bit,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R Ocala. “It puts a little different light on things, when all the lights are on and the cameras are on, to have a heart-to-heart conversation.”
Crisafulli distributed an information packet, including “talking points” about Medicaid expansion and funding of the Low Income Pool for hospitals treating indigents. That is the cause of a budget standoff with the Senate, which has halted House-Senate negotiations and will cause the regular 2015 session to end without a budget on May 1— necessitating a special session next month or in June. By contrast, the entire Senate started an all-day public hearing on the same issues — expansion of Medicaid and funding of the Low Income Pool for hospitals treating indigents — at the same time the House leadership locked itself in its party meeting room, with a few officers from the sergeant-at-arms office standing watch. About a dozen reporters badgered members on their way into the caucus and one man pressed his ear against the door, relaying snatches of Crisafulli’s remarks that he could make out. Associated Press reporter Gary Fineout said he heard Crisafulli tell fellow Republicans “we’re asking you to trust us … we’re in constant communication with the Senate.” At another point, the powerful speaker added that “we’re going to get beat up by the press,” but urged them to stand “like a rock” against Medicaid expansion or the Senate’s LIP plan. “Our general counsel went through our talking points. I was very scripted,” Crisafulli told reporters as he left the meeting. “He said everything we were doing in that meeting was perfectly within the confines of the law.”
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said the Constitution’s “sunshine” requirements allow the Legislature to make its own rules.“That’s all kind of squishy,” she said. “We can’t do much more thanfuss about it.” She cited Article III, Section 4(e) of the Constitution, which provides that legislative meetings called “to agree upon formal legislative action,” or to take such action, have to be “reasonably open to the public.” But the article also makes each chamber “the sole judge for the interpretation, implementation and enforcement” of its provisions.
Petersen, an attorney and veteran lobbyist on open-government issues, said the spirit of the law — if not the letter of the Constitution — was violated by the GOP lawmakers.
“What is more important right now than expanding Medicaid and LIP?” she said. “Everything hinges on what the House majority thinks. It’s going to control the rest of the legislative session.” Petersen also noted that the Constitution, laws and legislative rules don’t require any closedmeetings. “No meeting could be more important than what happened today, and they decided to shut us out,” she said. “They didn’t have to do that. What would be the harm of letting the public see what they’re doing?”
Original article here.