May 21, 2017
The private, high-level discussions that led to passage of Florida’s budget apparently were legal, even though critics contend that key legislative outcomes were negotiated in secret — an assertion House Speaker Richard Corcoran has challenged.
But no one can reasonably assert that the Legislature’s reliance on private meetings between two leaders — the speaker and Senate president — or a couple of committee chairmen constituted open, transparent government.
Opponents of House Bill 7069, including many school board members in Florida, have criticized not only the content of the education legislation but the manner in which it was reached.
It a May 12 tweet on Twitter — where else? — House Speaker Richard Corcoran stated: “Time to end the myth of ‘legislation negotiated in secret.’” The hashtags #transparency, #HB7069 and #PutKidsFirst followed.
An independent assessment by PolitiFact rated Corcoran’s claim “false.” While acknowledging that some aspects of the bill had been previously discussed in committees, PolitiFact found: “During the final week of the regularly scheduled session, Corcoran and [Senate President Joe] Negron — with help from other key lawmakers … — negotiated in private a catch-all education bill that included a final version of the teacher bonuses language, the policies of other K-12 budget bills and myriad other proposals unrelated to spending.”
The final version of the bill was publicly released the evening of May 5. On May 8, the session’s last day, the House approved the bill 73-36; the Senate voted in favor 20-18.
It’s true that speakers and presidents, or their surrogates, have long hammered out differences — ranging from minor to significant — behind closed doors.
But that doesn’t mean that this process, past or present, is transparent or in the public’s interest.
We recognize that leading a legislative chamber is often akin to herding cats, and that some of the most important decisions are often left to be made in the waning days of a session. What’s more, if the session doesn’t end on time, leaders get grief from the media, constituents and others.
However, neither the public nor rank-and-file legislators, for that matter, are served well by a process in which vital issues are decided — for all intents and purposes — in private. The results are not subject to adequate analysis by legislators and members of the public have too little time and too few opportunities to learn about the legislation and communicate with the officials they elected.
Although meetings of two legislators are not subject to Florida’s Sunshine Law, they undermine the premise of open government. What’s more, term limits have concentrated even more power in the hands of the House speaker and Senate president, reducing the amount of influence that legislators outside the inner circles in either chamber can have on important bills.
Legislators are not going to change the rules that allow private sessions between two House and Senate leaders and, unfortunately, amending the constitution to open those meetings is a longshot. So much for Tallahassee being part of the Sunshine State. [READ MORE]