The Florida Legislature will pass a flurry of bills this week. But the only thing they’re constitutionally required to do is pass a state budget.
Lawmakers settled on a budget worth slightly more than $77 billion – the largest in state history. They’ll vote on the spending plan Friday night to close out the legislative session.
In spite of Florida’s laws regarding open government, much of the budget negotiations have taken place in private.
Florida’s sunshine law says government business should be conducted in the open. It grants citizens access to government meetings.
Commissioners and other local leaders who are caught discussing public business in private can face jail time. But Barbara Petersen with the First Amendment Foundation says state legislators adhere to a lesser standard than their local counterparts.
Petersen says all prearranged gatherings of more than two legislators, the purpose of which is to discuss formal legislative action, must be reasonably open to the public. But lawmakers who are in the same place at the same time by coincidence can legally take up state business, and no one may know about it.
“The constitutional language says prearranged gatherings," Petersen says. "So that means if you have the House budget chief, the Senate budget chief, the general counsels and a couple of the committee members, and they just happen to bump into each other in the halls of the Capitol on a Saturday afternoon, that’s not a prearranged meeting.”
Florida has 160 part-time legislators. Their main job is to create a spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The House and Senate each come up with their own recommendations. Then they compromise until they have one budget to send the governor.
Petersen understands they have very little time to do this compromising – and might need to meet privately. She just wishes they'd be open about the fact that they're working in private.
“What’s reasonable is to say if you need to create an exception to that right of access to your meetings, create a rule that says at this point in time, budget negotiations may be held behind closed doors,” Petersen said.
Lawmakers can often be seen chatting in small groups on the House or Senate floor even as bills are being debated.
“They’re not talking about the Miami Heat or the Dolphins,” said Miami attorney Dan Gelber, a former state Senator and former Democratic leader in the House. “They’re talking about bills that they want approved and things like that. So the rule that applies to local commissioners and mayors and such really doesn’t apply in the same way to the Florida Legislature. They exempted themselves from that requirement.”
Gelber says lawmakers hold discussions in the member’s lounge, a private area behind the Legislature where they can eat lunch and relax. They also commonly retreat to what’s known as "the bubble" – one of the small, glass-enclosed conference rooms just off the floor of each chamber.
“In the bubbles are where legislators can go to have private discussions, and often anywhere from two to 30 or 40 people will go in there to have a meeting," Gelber said. "There are no media and there are no citizens there either, and those are the ways in which the Legislature conducts its business outside of the scope of the public.”
Gelber thinks it's okay for lawmakers to chat on the House and Senate floor, but he doesn't think they should otherwise negotiate state matters in private. He says there is no good reason for lawmakers to conduct business that way. But they do "because they don’t want the public to know what they’re doing.”
Public policy group Florida Taxwatch says taxpayers should be able to see how their money is being doled out and how those decisions are made. Even so, Taxwatch General Counsel Robert Weissert says private negotiations take less time than getting public input.
“There is an element of expediency and efficiency when you’re talking about a $75-billion budget and lawmakers trying to come together to create every little line item of it," Weissert said. "But nothing about our system of representative democracy is made to work efficiently. Its purpose is to work deliberately to represent the people whose money this is.”
Ultimately, Weissert says elected officials need the leeway to exercise their own authority.
“This is not a direct democracy. We have a republic where the people elect the legislators and the legislators make the decisions," Weissert said. "But it’s important that while they’re exercising that authority they do so publicly.”
Florida law requires a 72-hour waiting period before the Legislature can take a final vote on the budget. That means it has to be ready for review three days before the session ends.
If lawmakers don’t vote on and pass a budget by the 60th day of the session, their stay in Tallahassee is extended until the work is done.