Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Ruth: The dark shadow over Tallahassee lawmaking


Pay no mind. There is nothing to see here. No, really, there is nothing to see here. Move along. And shut up.

There was a time when Florida prided itself on open government, genuine transparency and ready citizen accessibility to public records and public meetings.

It was all quaintly covered under Florida's Sunshine Law. And it was grounded in a simple premise: If the public can't keep a watchful eye on its dubious public officials, the body politic is going to be stripped down to its skivvies before you can say "Tammany Hall."

So it's hardly surprising that over the years the Florida Legislature has steadily chipped away at the Sunshine Law, carving out myriad exceptions to make it easier for those charged with a public trust to avoid it.

There are more than a 1,000 exceptions to the Sunshine Law, which only makes sense. After all, if Florida's politicians make it easier for you to know what they are up to, then, well, you'll know. Who needs that aggravation?

This year in Tallahassee, which is an old Seminole word for "A Kabuki Dance of Chicanery," House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-We Don't Need No Stinking Sunshine Law, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-What He Said, secretly cooked up the most important pieces of the $82.4 billion budget with little input from most other legislators and certainly not the ooey-gooey public.

Two. Just two guys making the final decisions on taxes, education funding, environmental policy, criminal justice, pension and health care plans and all the other institutions of state government.

And let us not forget it was Corcoran who entered the speaker's office proclaiming a new era of openness and transparency, just before going into greater seclusion than J.D. Salinger — unless he had to take a call from a lobbyist.

Schools? You can always tell the Florida Legislature has less use for public education than President Donald Trump has for a polygraph machine when Tallahassee dreams up stuff called "Schools of Hope" and "Best & Brightest" reforms. About the only aspiration going on here was the Legislature's hope nobody would notice its efforts to transform the state's public education system into a privately run operation.

Much to the dismay of school officials across Florida's 67 counties, the House crafted a $419 million K-12 education bill in secret in the waning days of the legislative session without bothering to consult the very people who are supposed to implement it. As for public hearings? Please, who cares what the public thinks when there are more important constituencies to be catered to.

Besides, this wasn't really a public education bill. It was "The Charter School Expansion Act" to open the door to more privately run, publicly financed charter schools. And it was all devised out of the sunshine.

You could say this most recent legislative Skull and Bones session was the warmup act for the big enchilada of secrecy, the Constitution Revision Commission, which occurs every 20 years to propose new amendments to the state's overarching governing document. And since most of the members are appointed by either Gov. Rick Scott, Corcoran or Negron, you can be assured the proposed amendments will not be confused with Brigadoon meets Shangri-La.

The commission was set to meet Wednesday night in Tampa for a public hearing on what the great unwashed would like to see in a revised Constitution. But you have to suspect these public events are window dressing to create the appearance of transparency. The cynicism isn't entirely misplaced.

The last time the Constitution Revision Commission did its work in 1997, it was chaired by the late Dexter Douglass, a respected Tallahassee lawyer with broad experience in government.

This time the commission is chaired by failed Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carlos Beruff, a tea party devotee and political crony of Scott with no experience in the law.

Already Beruff has raised concerns about how open the commission's work will be to public scrutiny. And the commission has been crafted to give a wealthy political ideological dilettante broad discretion to approve or kill proposals.

So what do you suppose will be Beruff's attitude toward proposals expanding the scope of the Sunshine Law? Cue the rolling of eyes.

In other words, and this is a highly technical legal term, we're toast.


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