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House approves proposed open-records amendment

The Florida House passed a proposed constitutional amendment Thursday that would reopen the doors for public access to government records and meetings.

The House measure now goes to the Senate, where a vote could come as early as today, according to Senate President Gwen Margolis. If the Senate passes the proposed amendment unchanged, it would be placed on the November ballot.

As written, the constitutional amendment would re-establish many public rights of access that were closed by a state Supreme Court opinion last year. In that case, the justices held that Florida's Public Records Law didn't apply to government officials who draw their authority directly from the state Constitution. Those officials include the governor, elected Cabinet officers and members of the Legislature.

But the proposed amendment would go even further than the current open-records and meetings laws, providing access in some areas where it never existed. The biggest change would make the Legislature itself subject to open-record principles for the first time. The Legislature, which wrote the Public Records Law, always contended that it wasn't subject to the law. That's what led to last year's Supreme Court case.

In addition, records of the state judiciary would become subject to public access, as well.

The amendment doesn't open up everything, though. Deliberations by juries and appellate courts would stay closed. And meetings among groups of legislators would continue to be governed by a separate constitutional amendment.

Access to records would be limited, too. For instance, medical records, police intelligence information and business secrets all are exempt by law from public inspection. They likely would remain exempt under the proposed constitutional amendment, because current exceptions to the Public Records Law would be "grandfathered in" and would be extended to the Legislature and the judiciary. Current judicial rules limiting public inspection of records also would stay if the amendment is adopted.

In addition, the Legislature could pass new exemptions, provided it can spell out a good public purpose.

That's one area where the House and Senate have differed until this week. The Senate's version of the amendment required the Legislature to come up with a two-thirds majority to pass exemptions to public access. The House has stuck with a simple majority, out of concern that a minority of members could block exemptions in sensitive areas, such as medical records.

House Speaker T.K. Wetherell and Margolis both said the proposal satisfies most of their concerns.

In a preliminary analysis, Attorney General Bob Butterworth's staff appeared to agree. "If placed on the ballot and approved by voters, the proposed amendment would make Florida the only state in the nation to have an open government policy for both records and meetings in its constitution," the analysis said.

"Florida stands to have substantially more government in sunshine than it did even prior to the (recent Supreme Court case)."