Sunshine law exemptions in the works

4:24 AM, Jan 15, 2014   |    comments
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(Tallhassee.com) - Florida lawmakers are moving forward with several new exemptions to Florida's open-government laws, including bills that would shield information involving university fundraising and presidential searches from public scrutiny.

One bill, HB 115, would allow university direct-support organizations - which include university foundations and organizations like Seminole Boosters and FAMU boosters - to discuss private donations behind closed doors. Another, HB 135, would create new exemptions in Florida's open-government laws for presidential searches at universities.

A third bill, which unanimously cleared a Senate committee on Tuesday, would allow tax collector offices across the state to keep private email addresses of taxpayers under certain circumstances. Tax collectors are supporting the bill, SB 538, because they say keeping email addresses private opens taxpayers up to scams that are already being perpetrated in places like New York.

Florida public-records laws already shield information for donors who wish to remain anonymous, as well as other records from direct-support organizations that aren't related to their boards. HB 115 would extend the exemption to board meetings of the organizations.

State Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, was a lone opponent of both university-related bills when a House panel approved them last week.

She proposed changes intended to prevent donors from wielding improper influence over how their money is spent, arguing that keeping donor information secret creates "a lot of room for mischief," especially in cases where corporate donations help fund research. Her amendments were voted down.

"Elected officials and candidates have to report where we get donations, because there's a concern about influence to candidates and elected officials - as there should be - so everything is out in the open," she said. "I think the same thing should happen with universities."

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, said the organization supported legislation very similar to HB 115 last session. But the foundation hasn't taken a position on the current proposal for university support organizations. She said she's receiving inquiries about the bill and how it might impact major research donors to universities.

"There's a need for public oversight," Petersen said. "These are public universities. They're research universities. They're supposed to be pure, if you will. And if you have a major drug manufacturer giving the university a billion bucks, and they say we want research that says 'X,' how are we supposed to know that if the identity of the donor is exempt? That's the question I'm being asked."

Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, said the measure is intended to encourage fundraising by preventing anonymous donors from being hounded by fundraisers from other organizations. He said he planned to talk with Rehwinkel Vasilinda to address her concerns.

"There are some individuals who are reluctant to give and then publicize it because then they will be solicited by multiple people," he said.

A medical doctor familiar with clinical trials for drugs, he said scrutiny from other researchers guards against donors attempting to influence research findings.

"I have faith in the research community to sniff out those sorts of shenanigans," he said.

A measure passed the House last year, receiving just two no votes. It died in the Senate after clearing two committees unanimously.

SB 538 would shield email addresses on file at tax collectors offices for sending quarterly tax notices to taxpayers and other related purposes.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater and the bill's sponsor, told members of the Senate Community Affairs Committee on Tuesday the legislation is designed to prevent identity theft, fraud and scams carried out by criminals using the email addresses, which are readily available online or through public-records requests.

Such scams have been carried out in New York and other places, according to media reports. Florida Tax Collectors Inc. supports the bill; tax collectors from Dixie and Suwanee counties spoke in favor of it.

However, the First Amendment Foundation is opposing the bill, saying it's unnecessary and will encourage similar unneeded legislation affecting other government business conducted electronically.

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