September 22, 2016 – The Florida Times-Union, Guest Column
by Barbara Petersen, First Amendment Foundation President
Florida’s extraordinary tradition of open government is founded on the simple but essential concept that the people have a right to know how and why the government makes decisions on their behalf.
After all, it’s our government.
So when a government action stems from a process shrouded in secrecy, we have a right not just to ask questions but to demand that the process be changed.
The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation is currently considering a proposal by a secretive organization that would hike workers’ compensation rates by almost 20 percent, yet no one really knows exactly how they arrived at that number.
This process must be changed.
The National Council on Compensation Insurance is a private, state-sanctioned organization responsible for determining how much Florida businesses will pay for workers’ comp insurance.
State law requires businesses to carry workers comp, and NCCI recommends rates for approval by the states’ insurance commissioner.
Of particular concern is the lack of oversight and transparency in the process used by NCCI in formulating its proposal.
Florida law governing proposed workers compensation rate hikes stipulates that records and meetings relating to determining and proposing rate hikes are subject to Florida’s open government laws.
LOOKING FOR LOOPHOLES
This includes a provision applying the Sunshine Law to committee meetings “of a recognized rating organization with responsibility for workers’ compensation and employer’s liability insurance rates in this state” when proposed rate hikes are being discussed.
Unfortunately — but perhaps not surprisingly — when it developed its current rate hike proposal, NCCI did not comply with these requirements.
NCCI has unlawfully denied at least one public record request for “supporting information” relating to its recommendation and claims the law does not apply because NCCI does not have a “committee” that meets to determine proposed rate changes.
This assertion shows a complete lack of understanding of the breadth and scope of Florida’s Sunshine Law, and NCCI’s actions may constitute a violation of law.
FLORIDA LAW IS CLEAR
The purpose of the disclosure requirement is to provide the public with an opportunity for oversight and accountability, the cornerstones of our state’s open government laws.
Florida’s courts have repeatedly held that our right of access to the records and meetings of our government, as well as the records and meetings of those acting on behalf of government, is to be broadly construed to favor access to the public.
By denying its legal responsibility to act in the sunshine when proposing a significant rate hike for workers’ compensation, NCCI has acted contrary to the intent of the Legislature.
More troubling, it has acted contrary to the express wishes of the people of Florida, who have embraced open government time and time again.
The First Amendment Foundation asks the Office of Insurance Regulation to deny the proposed rate increase and require NCCI to start the process anew — this time in full compliance with Florida’s open government laws.
It’s the only way the people of Florida can know their interests are being properly protected. [READ MORE]
Barbara Petersen is president of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works as an advocate for the public’s right to oversee its government through application of Florida’s open government laws.