When powerful state legislators decide how to spend public money, the public ought to be able to watch. When the Senate president and the House speaker talk, the public ought to be able to listen. When two legislators meet to discuss the public's business, the public ought to be able to attend. But state lawmakers make their biggest decisions in the shadows, and Floridians are going to have to drag them into the sunshine.
There is a facade of openness in the Florida Legislature. Committee meetings and full sessions of the House and Senate are publicly scheduled and held in public. Formal votes are taken in public and recorded. But the outcome of those votes is rarely in doubt. The biggest decisions are more often made behind closed doors and out of earshot. That is bad for representative democracy, and bad for Florida.
The grand jury that indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom recognized the problem. First, it indicted Sansom on official misconduct charges for sliding into the state budget $6 million in college construction money for a building designed as an airport hangar to benefit a political contributor. Then it criticized a legislative system that enabled a powerful legislator to slip such an item into the budget without public scrutiny.
"This state should be guided in openness and transparency,'' the grand jury wrote in its presentment. "The procedure currently in place requires that our elected Legislature vote on a final budget that they have no knowledge about because it is finalized in a meeting between only two legislators. This process allows taxpayer money to be budgeted for special purposes by those few legislators who happen to be in a position of power.''
Instead of acknowledging the message, legislators disparaged the messenger. They went right on working in secret on the 2009-10 budget, as legislative leaders privately decided how much to spend in general areas such as social services and education. To be fair, that has been the traditional process. But it took on more importance this year, because it effectively determined how much revenue would be raised to help cover a shortfall and how that money would be distributed among competing priorities. Floridians ought to be able to watch those decisions being made so they can judge for themselves whether the state has enough revenue and whether they agree with the spending priorities.
Those are not the only decisions that need to be flushed out of the weeds and into the open. The late emergence of a bill to enable offshore drilling in state waters was no sudden brainstorm; it was carefully orchestrated and cloaked in secrecy to surprise opponents. Terrible election bills designed to suppress voting rights were not the work of lone lawmakers.
In 1990, voters approved a constitutional amendment aimed at ensuring the Legislature operates in the sunshine. It requires prearranged meetings of more than two members of the Legislature to be reasonably open if the goal is to agree upon formal legislative action. It also requires the governor, the House speaker, and the Senate president to meet in public. But it has not been entirely effective. Legislators use their own rules to circumvent the intent and work in the shadows. The president and the speaker talk on the phone to avoid meeting publicly.
Lawmakers will not lift this cloud themselves. It will require a citizens' initiative to place a new constitutional amendment on the ballot that would force the Legislature into the sunshine. The Legislature can ignore a grand jury presentment. It cannot ignore the will of the people.