Sunday, January 21, 2018
Editorials

Another power play by brazen lawmakers

Call it the Thursday afternoon surprise. Out of nowhere, the Florida House Judiciary Committee produced legislation that would grant state legislators and their staffs absolute protection from being required to testify or produce documents in civil court cases. The committee approved it along generally partisan lines, and now this dangerous four-page bill appears headed straight to the House floor with just three weeks left in the legislative session and no public scrutiny. There is no need for this blanket protection, and its supporters' motives are suspect at best.

State legislators already have protection in common law from being compelled to testify in civil court about their actions in public office. For example, four legislators and a staff member were subpoenaed to testify in a federal lawsuit involving the election law changes approved last year by the Legislature. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled earlier this month that they could not be forced to testify about the reasoning behind the controversial changes and cited a long-standing legislative privilege.

In state courts, judges have routinely recognized a similar protection and have been reluctant to compel state lawmakers to testify in civil cases about their official actions. But the protection is not absolute. Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, was ordered by a state judge in November to submit to limited questioning in a deposition by lawyers for an online travel company regarding tax legislation. Kriseman's situation was cited by the bill's supporters, but the legislation has much broader implications and Kriseman does not support it.

First, this appears to be aimed at short-circuiting anticipated court battles over redistricting. The House unsuccessfully fought the constitutional amendments approved by voters that establish new rules for drawing districts and refer to the intent of legislators. It would be impossible to determine their intent in drawing the new lines if lawmakers had absolute protection from testifying or producing documents for lawsuits that challenged the districts. When a Democrat offered an amendment to exempt redistricting lawsuits, the Republicans defeated it.

Second, the legislation would make it impossible for Floridians to rely on the courts to force legislators and their staffs to produce public records. When they refuse to produce those records, the only recourse is to ask a judge to compel them to produce the public documents. The legislation says it does not affect the right of access to records, but granting an absolute privilege from any civil action would make it impossible to get the courts to enforce that right. A League of Women Voters representative told the committee the legislation is an "outrageous assault'' on open government, and that may be an understatement.

A suddenly appearing, proposed committee bill with no legislator's name attached to it. One quick committee hearing. A straight shot to the full House as the session nears its usual frantic end. This is another sneaky attempt by brazen lawmakers to bend the law to benefit themselves, and it is an affront to Floridians who demand fairly drawn legislative districts and open government.

Comments
Editorial: Beware of social media targeting kids

Editorial: Beware of social media targeting kids

Ignoring all available evidence that screen time and social media exposure can be harmful to kids, Facebook recently unveiled a new messaging app targeting children under 13. It’s yet another battlefront for parents who have to constantly combat the ...
Published: 01/21/18
Editorial: Too soon for Tampa Bay to settle for buses over light rail

Editorial: Too soon for Tampa Bay to settle for buses over light rail

The good news on the transportation front is that Tampa Bay’s government and business leaders are working together like never before to connect the region’s largest cities, attractions and employment centers with a more robust mass transit system. Th...
Published: 01/20/18
Editorial: Saying ‘thank you’ helps Tampa police build needed trust

Editorial: Saying ‘thank you’ helps Tampa police build needed trust

The smiles, applause and at least one hug belied the grim impetus for a gathering last week at a neighborhood center in Tampa — the Seminole Heights killings.The Tampa Police Department held a ceremony to thank those who helped in the investigation t...
Updated: 12 hours ago
Editorial: Criminal charges should finally wake up FSU fraternities to hazing’s dangers

Editorial: Criminal charges should finally wake up FSU fraternities to hazing’s dangers

The death last fall of a 20-year-old Florida State University fraternity pledge revealed pervasive dangerous behavior within the school’s Greek system. Andrew Coffey, a Pi Kappa Phi pledge, died from alcohol poisoning after an off-campus party, and a...
Published: 01/19/18

Editorial: Confronting racial distrust in St. Petersburg, one conversation at a time

The St. Petersburg Police Department’s heavy presence in Midtown on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the community animosity it stirred have raised a familiar, troubling question: Can St. Petersburg’s racial divisions ever be reconciled?That big ideal ...
Published: 01/19/18
William March: Tampa Bay Democrats line up for state legislative races

William March: Tampa Bay Democrats line up for state legislative races

A surge of Democrats seeking local legislative offices and hoping for a "blue wave" in the 2018 election continued last week, led by Bob Buesing filing to run again versus state Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa.In addition:• Heather Kenyon Stahl of Tampa has...
Published: 01/19/18

Editorial: State’s warning shot should get attention of Hillsborough schools

The state Board of Education hopefully sent the message this week with its warning shot about the slow pace of the turnaround at Hillsborough County’s low-performing schools.The board criticized the school system for failing to replace administrators...
Published: 01/18/18
Updated: 01/19/18
Editorial: More talk, answers needed on future of USF St. Petersburg

Editorial: More talk, answers needed on future of USF St. Petersburg

The Florida Legislature’s abrupt move to strip the University of South Florida St. Petersburg of its hard-earned separate accreditation and transform it back into a satellite of the major research university lacks detail and an appreciation for histo...
Published: 01/18/18

Another voice: Self-dealing by nursing home owners threatens patient care

The outsourcing of logistical support services, which became commonplace in the U.S. military in the 1990s and later was adopted by state prison systems, has now come to dominate the nursing home industry. And while nursing homes, unlike the military...
Published: 01/17/18
Editorial: Making illegal sewage discharges legal is wrong answer

Editorial: Making illegal sewage discharges legal is wrong answer

Three years into a crisis with its sewer system, St. Petersburg has a dandy new idea for dealing with the environmental fallout of dumping dirty water into the aquifer. Instead of committing to banning the outlawed practice, a consultant suggested th...
Published: 01/16/18
Updated: 01/17/18