To hear the state senator from Broward County explain it, pushing a bill that expands the potential for government corruption was never his intent. Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, says he simply wants to fulfill a request of a constituent, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, to be able to accept donations from individuals who wished to remain anonymous.
But SB 166 is the wrong antidote to a problem that has been solved more creatively in dozens of other communities. Gov. Charlie Crist, who has made open government a hallmark of his administration, needs to veto the bill.
The legislation would carve an exemption into the state's open records law for donors or potential donors to government facilities who request anonymity. In Ring's mind, it would serve the greater good by encouraging well-heeled donors concerned about privacy to part with their cash. Others have suggested that the measure was designed to shield mere ticket-buyers' information from being accessible by public record or to prevent potential donors names from being leaked to competing entities. Despite the strong objections of the First Amendment Foundation, Ring succeeded in passing the bill unanimously in both chambers.
Ring's motive sounds benign. Who wouldn't like, particularly during this economic downturn, to see private donations boost communities' ability to support the arts? Ring said he is under the impression that the governor, under executive order, could decide not to enforce the provision on facilities that clearly have more direct political connections, such as a donor wishing to give a sizeable donation to the Governor's Mansion.
But just that acknowledgement — that the governor would need to act separately to "fix" the bill — is a sign that this legislation would do more harm than good. It would open the door to all kinds of hidden influence-peddling in state and local governments.
Say a powerful developer seeking a significant zoning change decided to donate money for a swanky renovation to City Hall but evoked his right to anonymity. Unlike a campaign contribution, which is public record, the anonymous donation would mean citizens have no way of knowing about his potential influence over the city council.
And what would stop politicians from soliciting anonymous donations for their pet projects — perhaps a building named in their honor at a state college? Special interests seeking influence with the politician would be able to give to the pet project with no public disclosure.
The state already provides ways for universities, museums, athletic departments and others to get around public records law by creating separate nonprofit organizations to raise money for them. That should suffice.
The legislation claims the public's interest is served because it would protect donors and potential donors from identity theft by shielding their name, address and phone numbers. A donation record likely contains less information than what can be found in county property records. And if there is sensitive information in such donor files, the bill should have been more narrowly tailored to accomplish that goal.
Instead, the governor is being presented with a measure that would reduce access to government records and increase the risk of corruption. Crist should veto SB 166.