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Bill to hide governor’s travel takes Florida down dark road

Legislators who can’t seem to ever say no to Gov. Ron DeSantis are about to repeal the people’s right to know where he’s been traveling on their dime and who’s been visiting him at his Capitol office, at the Governor’s Mansion where he and his family live rent-free, or anywhere else he goes as he explores the possibility of running for president of the United States.

It’s just more destruction that’s in store for Florida’s once-vaunted public records laws. The state Constitution says all government records are public unless specifically exempted, but the exemptions – there are now already more than 1,100 – are fast devouring the rule.

The newest subversion comes in Senate Bill 1616 and its House companion, HB 1495, which would block public records requests to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement—and any other law enforcement agency – for information pertaining to the transportation and security provided for the governor’s travel and residence.

Those records presently provide the only means to track the governor’s travel or identify who’s been visiting him if he doesn’t care to announce it, which is often the case. Those are always legitimate questions of public interest, all the more now that DeSantis, the most secretive governor in recent memory, is busily visiting early primary and battleground states that would figure in a presidential campaign.

In the last month DeSantis, apparently to test the national political waters, has given speeches in New Hampshire, Iowa, Ohio, Virginia and Michigan.

The bills originally impacted only travel records, but legislative committees amended them to also exempt “records relating to the security of the Governor’s office and mansion, including mansion security, facility operations, screenings and clearances,” as summed up in a Senate staff report.

It’s artfully worded: “Screenings and clearances” mean visitors.

Senate Bill 1616 was pushed through the Senate on Wednesday and was approved by a party line vote. An amendment by Sen.Lori Berman (D-Boynton Beach) to narrow the exemption failed, again along party lines. The bill now goest to the House where it is expected to pass.

From the outset, the bills made the exemptions retroactive with no cutoff date. In the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Michael Gottlieb tried to amend the House bill to open travel records once the travel is completed. The Republicans shot that down.

In doing that, they exposed their pretext for the legislation as a flat-out lie. The bill’s backers assert that the secrecy is necessary to protect high-level officials and those who guard them. Revealing names and places afterward could not possibly compromise any legitimate security concern.

The Constitution requires the Legislature to justify public records exemptions with a specific reason. The exemption can be “no broader than necessary” to serve the stated purpose. DeSantis and his minions are counting on the courts to swallow their guff.

The exemptions in this legislation are far broader than necessary to serve any legitimate purpose. The proposed iron curtain around travel and visitors shields not just the governor and his family but also the lieutenant governor, cabinet members, the Senate president and House Speaker, the chief justice, and any other persons for whom any of those officials have requested transportation or protection from law enforcement.

The Constitution also requires a two-thirds vote to enact any exemption, but there haven’t been any open government bills defeated during these last two years. The Republicans do what they’re told and the Democrats, some of whom can be flaky themselves on Sunshine issues, don’t have enough votes to stop them.

The concealment of DeSantis’s travel and visitors isn’t the only worrisome assault on Sunshine still pending in the Legislature. Although it’s not couched as a public records exemption, SB 7050 amends election law to require quarterly campaign finance reports from state and local political candidates prior to filing their actual qualifying papers – current law already requires candidates to file those reports monthly.

Voters should make a note of how their legislators vote on these matters. Open government needs to become an issue in every election campaign. As the Washington Post’s masthead slogan says with simple elegance, “Democracy dies in darkness.”

About the author: Martin Dyckman retired in 2006 from the St. Petersburg Times, where he wrote primarily about government and politics for 46 years as a reporter, state capital bureau chief and editorial writer. He lives in Asheville, NC, where he continues to observe Florida politics and writes editorials on assignment from the South Florida Sun Sentinel.