Commercial airports exist thanks to huge public subsidies. But Florida lawmakers passed legislation this session that would move important airport business behind closed doors. The public would not see the details of any joint venture or development agreement until after airport officials agreed to a deal or dropped the matter entirely. This legislation is an invitation to secrecy and scandal, and Gov. Rick Scott should veto it.
Florida's open-government laws are meant to give the public a voice and a view of how government acts and spends on its behalf. But the airport bill turns that concept on its head. It would allow a private company in business with the airport to bar disclosure of what the company considered "trade secrets." That would include business plans and audits that could give the public some sense of whether the company was a viable business partner. And the company would determine if and when the secrecy would end.
It gets worse. The bill, HB 913, also exempts any proposal between a public airport and a private firm calling for the sale, purchase, development or use of airport property. Those records would be released only after an airport's governing board approved a deal or 90 days after officials ceased negotiations. Tampa International Airport, the state's airports lobby and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the bill's sponsor, said offering secrecy was critical to attracting private business partners. But none of them could cite a single example of a company scared away by the open, public bidding process. And it defies common sense that airports would not see the same advantages as any buyer in putting a contract out to competitive bid.
This legislation is a fix in search of a problem. It is hardly surprising that airport directors would want to wheel and deal with public land and subsidies without the hassle of being held accountable. But these directors are running a public business. Making details public after the fact is meaningless. How could the public assess whether these leaders offered appropriate incentives for hotel, air service and other development deals? How could residents shape the look of their airports and the role they play in their communities? It is particularly disappointing that TIA played a lead role, coming only months after its former director quit over complaints he was not transparent. Solid contracts can withstand the light of day, and Scott should veto the bill. It is less about jobs than making it easier for public officials to act first and answer questions later — after it is too late for residents to affect their decision.