Friends of the First Amendment:

There was lots of bad news coming out of Tallahassee last week, as the Legislature continued its assault on Florida’s public records law and long-standing tradition of open government. But there was also a small hint of sunshine. More on that later.

In what amounts to blasting one of the biggest holes in the Public Records law ever, the Florida Senate overwhelmingly passed SB 1616, which repeals the public’s right to know where Florida’s governor – and assorted other statewide officials – have traveled on the taxpayer’s dime. What’s more, it would apply retroactively, obliterating dozens of record requests that have been filed as Gov. Ron DeSantis has increased his travels in and out of state. And as the equivalent of a cherry on top, the bill also keeps secret the names of anyone who visits the Governor’s Mansion – where DeSantis and his family live rent-free – unless that person is there on official Florida state business. So the names of the fundraisers, donors, advisers, pollsters and others who trek to Tallahassee to meet with the presumed presidential candidate won’t ever be known to the public unless the governor wants them known.

Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, worked with the First Amendment Foundation to submit an amendment that would have allowed travel records to become public 30 days after the trip ended. But Republicans, warning ominously of threats to the governor’s “security” if taxpayers found out where DeSantis had gone and how much it cost, shouted it down.

The bill now moves on to the House, where its companion, HB 1495 awaits – and is almost certain to pass. Ironically, final passage may come during a week when DeSantis is scheduled to travel to Israel and Japan.

Margie Menzel of WFSU quoted Bobby Block in her advancer on the vote. Martin Dyckman also weighed in for the Florida Center for Government Accountability.

As we move towards the Legislature’s May 5 scheduled adjournment, expect a raft of exemptions to the public records and open meetings laws to pass. There are at least 99 proposed exemptions and modifications. The first of them, CS/SB 50, exempting addresses and personal information of judicial assistants, passed and was sent to the governor on Wednesday. Expect many more to go through in the next two weeks. At this point, there seems to be absolutely no interest on the part of the Legislature’s Republican supermajority in protecting the public’s right to know. This has been one of the worst sessions in modern history for public records, open meetings, free speech and assembly.
Now, the ray of sunshine…..

Wednesday’s Senate Rules Committee meeting came and went with no sign of SB 1212, the defamation bill that FAF and its allies have been fighting for the past six weeks. Monday is the last scheduled day for committee hearings, and neither SB 1212 nor its House counterpart, HB 1495, is on any agenda. That’s important, because legislative procedure says bills should – not must, but should – pass through committees to get to the floor. Gary Fineout of Politico Florida Report opined that the bill appears to be “just about dead.” Florida Politics went even further.

But there are still 14 days (as of Friday) left in this session – and anything can happen. With a two-thirds vote, lawmakers can waive the rules and attach any bill languishing in committee to a measure that’s on the floor, as long as there’s some similarity of subject. So as the late great Yogi Berra famously said, it ain’t over until it’s over.

First Amendment Foundation