There’s an old gag that claims few things are safe when legislative bodies are in session.
And like most gags, there’s at least a grain of truth involved.
We bring that up because on Tuesday the Florida Legislature kicks off its 2010 session up in Tallahassee.
Hundreds of proposed laws and amendments have been pre-filed by our state representatives and senators. We always take careful note of those bills that concern public records and open government. Florida’s government-in-the-sunshine laws are annually — at least from a newspaper editor’s perspective — under assault.
There’s a healthy number of ominous-sounding bills again this year.
But, there’s also a bright light, one that might throw much-needed, long-overdue sunshine on the Florida Legislature.
That light is in the form of two joint resolutions — one filed in the house (HJR 241) by Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, and one filed in the Senate (SJR 440) by Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.
If the resolutions manage to pass both bodies, we will see a constitutional amendment on the November ballot, meaning Florida voters will have a chance to expand the public’s right to know.
There are many things to like about the proposed amendment — again, from a newspaper editor’s perspective.
Currently, our local elected officials — school board members, city council members and county commissioners — are required to discuss business in public at scheduled meetings. Talking among themselves behind closed doors or on the telephone is generally a crime.
That’s not the case with the elected officials we send to Tallahassee. State representatives and state senators legally can meet out of the sunshine. And, they do it all the time.
The proposed amendment would alter that, requiring members of legislative conference committees to discuss matters that come before the conference committee only at a meeting that is advertised and open to the public.
That would cut down on those late-night agreements in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms.
The proposed amendment would also restrict last-minute changes or additions to bills being voted on by either the House or Senate. All sorts of things have been tacked on to laws in the final, hectic days of a legislative session.
The proposal would require special approval on amendments offered to bills in the last five days of the legislative session or during special sessions. For instance, a state senator or state representative offering an amendment to a bill in the closing hours of the annual session would need the approval of three-quarters of his colleagues.
Finally, the proposed amendment would require clarity in spending bills.
Here’s how it is worded in House Joint Resolution 241:
“The general appropriations bill shall provide to the reader sufficient information for the average reader to be able to determine: the source of funds; the use of the funds appropriated, with enough detail to know what purpose the funds are intended to achieve; and where to find any underlying references needed to provide sufficient detail. An appropriations bill must also contain references to any performance measures or requirements that relate to the use of such funds.”
If that makes it through the Legislature this session, a blast of fresh air will accompany the sunshine.
Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org