BY JAMES L. ROSICA
Published: April 14, 2014 | Updated: April 14, 2014 at 07:06 PM
TALLAHASSEE — With two work weeks left in Florida’s legislative session, lawmakers have passed just one measure related to creating or widening loopholes in the state’s “sunshine” laws but they are close to passing more than a dozen others.
The bill approved so far (HB 177) expands an existing exemption for phone card providers’ “confidential business information” when given for state tax purposes.
Several others have been passed by one chamber and are awaiting approval in another.
One would make secret any email addresses used by tax collectors to send paperless tax notices (SB 538). Another would shroud the identities of people applying to be president, provost or dean of a state university or college (HB 135).
“We could conceivably get two dozen exemptions or close to it,” said Barbara A. Petersen, president of The First Amendment Foundation, an open government watchdog. “That would be a record.”
Her group is neutral on many of the proposed exemptions, but she worries about their cumulative effect on the state’s open records law, widely considered the best in the nation.
In 1985, there were 250 exemptions to the state’s public records and open meetings statutes, also known as sunshine laws. Now there are 1,100, Petersen said.
“Every time you create an exemption, you’re chipping away at the constitutional right of access,” she said.
The Legislature is taking a break this week for Passover and Holy Week and will resume business, including work on the state budget, next week through the end of the session on May 2.
Meantime, lawmakers have advanced bills that would put more information into the public domain.
The Senate unanimously passed a measure (SB 1194) that would create new reporting and transparency requirements for outside organizations, such as the Florida Beef Council, that support the work of state government.
But a major open-government overhaul (HB 1151) has stalled in the House, while a companion (SB 1648) passed the Senate.
Here are highlights of what the measure would do.
♦ Allow a public records request to be made over the phone unless there’s a specific requirement already in law that it be written for certain kinds of records.
♦ Provide that a fee charged for “a voluminous or complicated public records request” be limited to the cost of the lowest-paid workers who can fulfill the request.
♦ Require state agencies to train their employees on Florida’s public records laws.
Scott Dudley, legislative affairs director for the Florida League of Cities, said his group had wanted some of the language clarified, particularly as to who should receive records law training.
“When we get to where we’re going on that, we’ll be 100 percent behind it,” he said.
Petersen said not all employees need the same training, but a security guard, for instance, “needs to know who to call if he’s handed a public records request.”
She also said many of the statements of public necessity included in this year’s exemption bills are “based on conjecture.”
The necessity to keep secret the names of college president applicants is one example.
“Many, if not most, applicants for such a position are currently employed at another job … and could jeopardize their current positions if it were to become known that they were seeking employment elsewhere,” the bill says.
An exemption is “needed to ensure that a search committee can avail itself of the most experienced and desirable pool of qualified applicants.”
Petersen said Florida’s universities already have had great success hiring their leaders while working in the sunshine.
“The Legislature just needs to take a harder look at what they’re doing,” she said. “Every year, they try to create more exceptions, but no one is rushing to make our public records law any better.”