Watchdog Reporting from Florida's State Capitol

Legislating in the time of COVID-19 means putting protections over public access

Located on the tallest hill in the highest part of the state, halfway between Pensacola and Jacksonville, Florida’s Capitol is hard to reach for most Floridians during the annual legislative session.But this year, as legislators opened their 60-day session Tuesday trying to navigate a global pandemic and stay healthy enough to avoid disrupting their activities, access to elected government is even more distant.

Timeline: Florida’s dark year for its Sunshine Law

A year ago on March 1, 2020, Florida announced its first two cases of the novel coronavirus, and declared a public health emergency recognizing the emergence of the novel coronavirus. Only later did we learn that the spread of COVID-19 in Florida likely began in January, if not earlier, but as late as March 11, as the White House downplayed the virus, Gov. Ron DeSantis denied that community spread was taking place in Florida. Here is a summary of the state of transparency in Florida over the last year:

This secretive group is trying to create barriers to amending Florida’s Constitution

A secretive organization with the goal of thwarting amendments approved by voters after the 2020 election cycle has spent more than $800,000 on paid petition gatherers in the last four months, using funds from undisclosed sources and raising the specter of another high stakes fight over the future of energy regulation in Florida. The organization calls itself Keep Our Constitution Clean and says its purpose is to keep the state’s premier legal document uncluttered by special interest measures.

Reluctantly, under pressure, Florida disclosed COVID-19 data. What the numbers tell us

As Florida’s government built a plan to contain the effects of a global pandemic, it elevated one tool above all others: data. But unlike the way the state has handled other infectious diseases, the COVID-19 records have been incomplete, changed without explanation, dropped from the Department of Health website without warning, or don’t match the public narrative advanced by the governor. The Miami Herald investigated.

The Florida COVID-19 data said one thing while Gov. DeSantis sometimes said another

When Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that most of the state would reopen for business on May 4, he cited his administration’s “data-driven strategy” and success at achieving “critical benchmarks in flattening the curve” to contain COVID-19. But a review of the data the governor was using shows his public pronouncements were often in conflict with real-time facts. He either wasn’t aware the data showed that community spread, regional outbreaks and death tolls were worse than he was telling Floridians, or he selectively focused on outdated statistics to make his case.

$5 million in paid time off? Records show domestic violence agency CEO got that and more.

Florida legislators learned Thursday the cost of their decision to direct millions of taxpayer dollars to a private domestic violence agency and ask few questions. After months of obfuscation, the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence revealed for the first time that for the last three years it compensated its chief executive officer more than $7.5 million from state and federal funds — including nearly $5 million in cash compensation for “paid time off.”

New head of Florida prisons sees dire warning signs. ‘Status quo is not sustainable’

Florida's new secretary of the Department of Corrections has a sober warning: Florida prisons are on the brink of collapse. They cannot sustain the understaffed, inexperienced crew of corrections officers in command of a penal system stripped of educational programs and housed in crumbling facilities. As I explain, years of budget cuts and legislative indifference have led to this problem.

Guns are ‘the issue of our time.’ Florida Senate leaders talk of taking action.

Two mass shootings that left 31 dead and renewed a national call for better attention to the warning signs of homegrown terrorism have revived the debate in Florida’s Capitol over how to curb gun violence. Stirring the debate is Senate President Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who this week sent signals he is prepared to use political capital to pass gun legislation in an election year.
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