Florida gets low marks for open government

TALLAHASSEE — Florida has some of the nation's most expansive open records policies, but its Sunshine Law does not adequately regulate the sometimes shadowy role of lobbyists, according to a national report released today.

The State Integrity Investigation report, conducted by a coalition of groups including the Center for Public Integrity, gave Florida a "C-" grade for transparency, ranking the state 15th nationwide.

Florida's overall grade was dragged down by what critics say are loose laws regarding the state's 2,000 registered lobbyists, who wield considerable sway in shaping policy and spending in Tallahassee.

"You have a lot of these state legislators that work part-time, and a lot of time they're relying very heavily on lobbyists" for information, said Caitlin Ginley, project manager for the State Integrity Investigation report. "There's no one really checking to make sure that those relationships are kosher."

The report comes on the heels of Sunshine Week, when state officials lauded Florida's open government laws and policies. On Friday, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater pointed to a recent report by the nonprofit Sunshine Review, which gave Florida's state website a "B" on transparency. However, that report also pointed out the dearth of available information on the state's $127 million lobbying industry.

The SII report likened Florida's laws regulating lobbyists to "Swiss cheese," because they have several exemptions, allowing people who usually influence lawmakers to operate outside of regulations.

And while state law requires lobbyists to disclose their allegiances and report their compensation each quarter, failing to do so rarely leads to significant penalties, the report found. The Legislature is charged with investigating, and several lawmakers have chummy relationships with lobbyists, who are regulars at political fundraisers and campaign events.

"It's set up so it's a wink and a nod," Edwin Bender, executive director of National Institute on Money in State Politics, told investigators. Bender said he was unaware of any legislator-backed lobbyist audit ever being commissioned by Florida lawmakers.

Even when audits are done, monetary penalties for misconduct are capped at $5,000, a drop in the bucket for a multimillion-dollar industry that influences multibillion-dollar spending decisions.

"You have to wonder whether that level of punishment is really effective," said Ginley. "Is it just a slap on the wrist?"

Jennifer Green, chairwoman of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, said the industry is self-regulating and, while the $5,000 penalty is small, it's rarely needed.

"I think that if there had been 10, 20, or 30 people brought up on ethics violations and sanctions, then maybe we should increase (the penalty)," she said. "But I don't know that there's been more than one (recent) case."

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Lobbying laws were also part of the reason Florida scored a "D" grade on the campaign finance section of the SII report. State law allows lobbyists and other individuals to contribute an unlimited amount of money to political parties, which can then dole the funds to individual candidates.

The report also gave the state low marks on transparency for its budgeting process, ethics enforcement and insurance. On "access to information," Florida received a 67, or a "D+," with investigators noting that accessing public records can be hampered by lengthy delays, prohibitive costs and dozens of exemptions.

Pat Gleason, the attorney general's special counsel on open government, disagreed.

"Our state does a pretty good job," she said. "Floridians have a right to sue an agency if they fail to comply with the (public records) law."

On redistricting, Florida received a 100 percent grade, with investigators praising the state for holding dozens of public meetings to discuss the once-a-decade process of redrawing political districts. While the process was open, the final product got low marks from Florida's Supreme Court, where the state Senate redistricting map was rejected as unconstitutional. The House map was approved.

Florida was not alone in its below-average grade. Forty-three states received grades of "C" or below, and Florida bested 35 of them. The highest ranked state was New Jersey, with a "B+" score. The worst was Georgia, lowest among eight states receiving an "F."

Florida gets low marks for open government 03/19/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 19, 2012 8:12am]

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