Transparency Must Be a Top Legislative Priority

By: Rep. Perry E. Thurston, Jr., Florida House Democratic Leader

For four decades, Florida has enjoyed a reputation as a world leader in open government. The honor is owed greatly to the fact that our Government-in-the-Sunshine Law requires meetings of governmental bodies to be public and our Public Records Law demands that governmental records be available for inspection and copying.

This cherished tradition of openness must continue. It is responsible for giving journalists and other citizens the tools to hold government officials accountable and for bringing a greater public understanding of the policy decisions of local and state leaders.

So this year, it is my hope that the Florida Legislature, governor, attorney general, and all our executive branch agencies strive harder to promote and improve the public’s access to government decision-making.

I happen to believe that transparency is what our state government is expected to ensure the citizenry. Likewise, access to records and other information about the government is the public’s absolute right. Of course, there are some legitimate reasons for some exemptions to our public records requirements, such as the exemptions intended to protect the safety of children and to give certain necessary protections to law enforcement officials. But I believe that these exemptions should remain the exception. In fact, under Florida’s Constitution, lawmakers are to provide compelling reasons why otherwise public information should be cloaked.

Just as important to me, there also are critical steps that legislative leaders can take this year to bring more openness to the public. It has to do with bringing out of the shadows the often-secretive process of crafting what’s arguably the most important annual product of the Florida Legislature – the state budget.

While most local governments spend a better part of the year crafting in public their spending plans, the Florida Legislature’s state budget-writing process is often secretive and is crammed in a tight schedule that doesn’t allow for thoughtful decision-making on Florida’s needs and priorities. Even worse, major budget-writing decisions, such as the setting of allocations for various major program areas, are typically determined behind-closed-doors by a very small number of legislators. I believe these stealthy practices are outdated and inconsistent with our reputation of operating in the sunshine.

Transparency in the writing of the state budget and all legislative decisions is a priority that deserves renewed attention.