Gov. Rick Scott acted on behalf of Floridians Friday by vetoing a bill that would have driven underground the business of the state's airports. Even for a Legislature with open contempt for open government, this bill was extreme and an invitation to scandal. Scott did the right thing by rejecting a measure that could have served as a disastrous model for other public agencies.
HB 913 would have allowed public airports to conduct a whole host of business dealings behind closed doors — even though these airports spend public money, serve unique public missions for entire communities and exist thanks to decades of significant public subsidies. Private firms in business with an airport could have barred disclosure of any information they deemed to be a "trade secret." The information could have included business plans and audits that airports would need for assessing whether a company was a viable business partner.
The governor has hardly been a champion of transparency in his brief tenure. But this bill was unnerving in the reach it gave to airports to flout the state's Sunshine Laws and the public's right to see how its money is spent. It would have exempted from public view any proposal between an airport and a private business that involved the use, sale or development of airport property. Those records would be released only after an airport sealed a deal or 90 days after negotiations collapsed.
It is meaningless to inform the public after the fact, and Scott deserves credit for recognizing what 130 members of the 160-member Legislature could not. Imagine a community waking up and realizing its airport had been sold or put in third-party hands under a leasing arrangement.
The main proponents of the bill — the state airports lobby and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the bill's sponsor — said the secrecy was needed to attract private sector business partners. But supporters could not cite a single example of a firm being scared off by the open bidding process that is the norm in Florida for doing business with government agencies. Scott, in his veto letter, noted he was sympathetic to shielding some propriety information, but "the need to exempt all information relating to all business negotiations engaged in by the public airports has not been demonstrated. Indeed, public airports have been operating effectively for years without such exemptions."
Open competition — not back-room dealmaking — is the best way to ensure that airports get the most bang for their buck. And airport directors — and the public boards that hire them — need to be accountable for their business decisions. With his veto, the governor sent the message loud and clear. And the message is timely as Florida's airports become more aggressive about attracting development deals to their properties.
Tampa International Airport's new director, Joseph W. Lopano, and its governing board should take special note. The board adopted a new incentive plan for airlines this month that will pay carriers to bring new flights to Tampa. But Lopano released few details of the million-dollar program before he presented it to the board. And he still won't say how much the agency expects to spend or whether it has lined up carriers for an incentive that was put immediately into effect.
Airports are public assets whose business belongs in the public purview so taxpayers can hold them to account. Scott understood that. Now, so too should airports and other public institutions.