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Florida Democrats should stick together to defeat bad public records law | Editorial
The state should keep these records in the sunshine.
Visitors walk into Florida's Capitol building in Tallahassee.
Visitors walk into Florida's Capitol building in Tallahassee. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 16, 2021

Democrats in the state Legislature have a chance to stop a bad law from taking effect. All they have to do is stick together. If they remain disciplined and vote as a bloc, they can chalk up a rare victory — and keep public records in the sunshine, where they belong. Will they do it?

The Republicans hold large majorities in the House and the Senate. In recent years, they have shown a remarkable ability to keep most internal disputes in check and the discipline to pass their top priorities. For better and for worse, they routinely outplay the Democrats in the rough-and-tumble environment of state politics. At times, it feels like the Tampa Bay Bucs are playing against a high-school team.

The Republicans will almost assuredly dominate this week’s special session called to limit mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The proposed bills would allow employees to opt out of their employer vaccine mandates if they provide a doctor’s note or claim a religious exemption. Employees would be allowed to file complaints against their employers with the Attorney General’s office, which could levy fines of up to $50,000. Another bill would exempt the complaints against private employers from public scrutiny.

The Legislature must show a “public necessity” when creating a public records exemption. The text of this bill SB 4 makes a flimsy case based on a heavy dose of supposition glued loosely to lots of conjecture. The information in a complaint could be used to “harass, embarrass, or humiliate a person based on his or her medical information or religious beliefs,” the bill asserts. The information “could result in the employee becoming a target of an act of violence or other crimes.” Talk about overwrought.

It would be easy to exempt lots of state records based on theoretical worst-case scenarios. But when in doubt, government records should be public, open for inspection to any interested person. Openness promotes fairness, honesty and accountability, bedrocks of a well-functioning democracy. Secrecy does the opposite. It allows corruption to fester and erodes confidence in the political system. This exemption would make it harder to know if the complaints were handled judiciously.

Thankfully, it takes a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate to pass an exemption to the state’s public records laws. The Republicans don’t have that many votes on their own. They need some Democrats to support the bill. But for once the Democrats shouldn’t splinter. In this case, they can do some good if they can find the courage to stick together.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.