The Florida Legislature is trying to make government records less open. (Photo via MedillNSZ/Flickr)

The Florida Legislature is trying to make government records less open. (Photo via MedillNSZ/Flickr)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

As this year’s Legislative session nears an end, there are a handful of bills making their way through both chambers that could expand public record loopholes. Already, one bill has passed.

The E.W. Scripps / Tampa Tribune Tallahassee Bureau reported this week:

The bill approved so far (HB 177) expands an existing exemption for phone card providers’ “confidential business information” when given for state tax purposes.

Several others have been passed by one chamber and are awaiting approval in another.

One would make secret any email addresses used by tax collectors to send paperless tax notices (SB 538). Another would shroud the identities of people applying to be president, provost or dean of a state university or college (HB 135).

One of the most controversial changes to state law includes a measure tied to the “warning shot” bill—which is legislation allowing law-abiding citizens to fire warning shots or brandish a weapon in self-defense. Right now, warning shots carry hefty prison time in Florida.

However, there is a provision in that measure that would limit public access to information about how that law is being applied.

According to E.W. Scripps / Tampa Tribune:

Under the bill, those who successfully claim a “stand your ground” defense and are found innocent could also petition a court to expunge their court records.

Current state law allows expungement, or removal from the public view, of a “criminal history record,” not just a record of a conviction.

The expungement provision “not only limits public oversight, but potentially could serve as a tool for obscuring law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct,” [First Amendment Foundation] President Barbara A. Petersen wrote.

Democrats had tried to take out that section, explaining that policymakers, news media and others should be able to keep track of who’s found innocent.

“For example, this legislation would allow someone … to hide an arrest record, records relating to the investigation made by the prosecutor, and even the records justifying the dismissal – thus potentially allowing for secret arrests and secret investigations,” Petersen wrote.

This sunshine law exemption could also greatly affect reporting and academic study of the law.

The warning shot bill is currently awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s signature.

There are, however, some bills stalled in the Legislature that could create more transparency.

According to E.W. Scripps / Tampa Tribune:

The Senate unanimously passed a measure (SB 1194) that would create new reporting and transparency requirements for outside organizations, such as the Florida Beef Council, that support the work of state government.

But a major open-government overhaul (HB 1151) has stalled in the House, while a companion (SB 1648) passed the Senate.

Here are highlights of what the measure would do.

  • Allow a public records request to be made over the phone unless there’s a specific requirement already in law that it be written for certain kinds of records.
  • Provide that a fee charged for “a voluminous or complicated public records request” be limited to the cost of the lowest-paid workers who can fulfill the request.
  • Require state agencies to train their employees on Florida’s public records laws.

There are about two weeks left in the state’s current Legislative session.