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Cloud over Sunshine Law mostly dissipated

The news was grim for open government advocates this year. Lawmakers proposed a record 125 exemptions to public records and meetings. Many used the war on terrorism as justification.

In the end, the overwhelming majority failed, and none of the 23 bills that passed were very restrictive.

And there was an unexpected victory for open government: a constitutional amendment to make it harder to enact exemptions to the Sunshine Law. Voters will decide in November whether to require a two-thirds vote in each chamber of the Legislature to pass an exemption.

"Although it was looking really bleak, and we had an extraordinary number of bills filed, in the final analysis, it wasn't that bad," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog for open government in Florida funded partly by newspapers.

Lawmakers placed a moratorium on putting certain public records on the Internet, including military discharge papers and death certificates. Blueprints of public buildings will now be secret. And financial information, such as bank account numbers, will no longer be public records.

They also decided to withhold Social Security numbers on existing public records, although businesses with legitimate reasons, like information gatherer LexisNexis, could gain access.

"I believe open government is the best government," said Rep. John Carassas, R-Belleair. "That is why I voted against a significant number of bills creating new exemptions to public records."

Some bills that passed weren't new exemptions but extended exemptions that would otherwise have expired.

Many of the most restrictive bills didn't pass, including one allowing governments to hold private meetings to talk about spending taxpayers' money, another keeping information about customers of public utilities secret and a third prohibiting the release of information involving possible mistakes by doctors at their offices.

The threat to Florida's national reputation for openness became such a hot issue that some legislators suggested the state remove the word "sunshine" from Florida's welcome signs and about two dozens newspapers ran editorials against the measures on March 10, which they dubbed Sunshine Sunday.

As the session wore on, legislators began voicing skepticism.

"I think we're going in the wrong direction," protested Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac, in the closing days. "Why do we need all these exemptions?"

_ Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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