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Opening up government

Floridians will get the chance in November to make their state government more open. The result could be that it also will be more responsive.

The best illustration of that relationship may come from the course of legislative action and debate on the proposed constitutional amendment itself. The crisis in open-records law in Florida was created by a far-reaching Supreme Court ruling in November that said agencies not created by the Legislature do not have to follow open records laws. That court ruling, though, came in response to a lawsuit that was filed because a state representative refused to turn over financial records to a constituent.

The original case, filed in 1988 against former state Rep. Dick Locke, D-Inverness, was fought vigorously by the leaders of the House. The high court's ruling in November was in fact a victory for House officials, though it went further than they requested.

The court ruling created public awareness and, with it, public demand. The lawmakers who spent public money fighting the lawsuit and who in a December special session would not take corrective action did not have the same difficulty this time. Though the House softened the version offered by the Senate, the proposed amendment sailed through both chambers. The Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to put it on the ballot.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth and Senate President Gwen Margolis deserve credit for forcing the action on open records. Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor, is to be commended for trying to strengthen the proposal. The result is

that Florida can become the only state in which people have a constitutional right to see the product of their government's work. Records of local and county governments have been considered public documents for years, but the Legislature in the past has arrogantly exempted itself. The amendment brings the Legislature, the executive branch and the courts under the same constitutional principle: That government records are open to the public except in cases of "public necessity."

Lawmakers already have exempted their constituent mail (although such mail is considered public records in city and county governments), and people who vote for this constitutional amendment will want to pay careful attention to one sentence in fine print. It allows the Legislature to exempt any record that has been deemed private as of July 1, 1993. That creates a window of opportunity the public will want to watch.

On balance, lawmakers deserve praise for their action. They ended up voting to change the way they do business, and to open some types of records that had been closed in the past. That's progress, and voters will want to endorse it.