This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Why should Florida taxpayers fund a secret airline and travel agency for the governor and the state’s political elites? That’s the question raised by a patently ludicrous bill that would shield any public information about how and where Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials go. Florida’s open-government laws may be a drag to unaccountable politicians and lazy bureaucrats. But disclosure comes with the territory — and Florida’s constitution requires it.
House and Senate sponsors in the Republican-led Legislature advanced bills this week that would impose the first-ever public records exemption for the transportation records held by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the agency that handles the governor’s security. The exemption would take effect retroactively, prohibiting anyone from scrutinizing how DeSantis has used his state travel in the past and as he prepares for a likely campaign for the Republican nomination for president, as Mary Ellen Klas of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reported Wednesday.
As irony would have it, the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee unanimously passed SB 1616 on Wednesday, one day after a House committee advanced a companion bill on a 17-0 vote. The measures would exempt travel information for the governor and his or her immediate family, visiting governors and their families, the lieutenant governor, a member of the state Cabinet and the House speaker, Senate president and chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, and for others whose secretive arrangements “are requested by the governor.”
State law allows governors to use state planes for official and personal travel for security reasons, but in the past, officials who have used state assets for campaign purposes have been expected to reimburse taxpayers. The sponsor of the Senate legislation, Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, said there had been an increase in public records requests under DeSantis because of the governor’s rising national profile. Martin said he sponsored the bill at FDLE’s request, citing the agency’s concern about the volume of records requests. An FDLE spokesperson defended the legislation by saying that attempted violence against political figures had heightened nationally, and that releasing security details posed a risk to all who attend political events.
But this legislation exempts far more than security operations from public view. It would keep secret “travel records” and “records pertaining to transportation” for public figures and their entourages, including “logistical” information related to traveling to and from events. That could make it impossible to determine where a governor was traveling, with whom he was meeting, who was tagging along, who was paying and — most importantly, whether the trip’s purpose was to benefit Floridians or a governor’s political career.
That legislative Democrats have supported the bill does not legitimize bad legislation. Democratic lawmakers in recent years have shown as much indifference to open government as their counterparts across the aisle, so don’t glean anything virtuous from this bipartisan servility to the governor.
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If the city clerk in Pahokee can find the time to comply with requests for public information, so can Florida’s top law enforcement agency. Florida’s constitution requires that any law exempting records “shall state with specificity the public necessity justifying the exemption,” and more, that any exemption be narrowly tailored “to accomplish the stated purpose of the law.” These bills are overly broad, applying to too many people in too many circumstances, and they give the governor extreme discretion to conceal matters from the public that have nothing to do with protecting himself or others. Has hubris run this amok in Tallahassee?
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.