Florida gets a D- in new ranking of state govt. accountability and transparency assessment

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The state of Florida is getting a failing grade in a new report ranking and assessing state government accountability and transparency.

The Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity has just reviewed every state in the country in these categories, and gives Florida a score of 61, a D-. That ties the Sunshine State for 30th place among the 50 states in the nation, a drop from 2012, when the state earned a C- from the same group. The report says that the two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years.

In 2011, a study by Integrity Florida found the Sunshine State ranked No. 1 for public corruption based on federal convictions.

And In 2014, Florida state government ranked No. 1 for political corruption based on aHarvard University survey of statehouse correspondents across the country.

The new report says that a weakness in Florida’s Sunshine Laws is non-compliance. “The statutes create a program through the attorney general’s office that offers mediation at no cost. But should the parties not be satisfied with the program’s non-binding decisions, a criminal complaint can be filed with the state attorney, which may or may not be investigated. After that, a civil suit is the final option,” says the report, written by Ashley Harrell.

The report adds that in those cases, complainants must hire a lawyer and the process can drag on for months. The loser must pick up the fees and court costs. “It’s expensive, so we don’t do it very often,” the report quotes Mary Ellen Klas, capital bureau chief for the Miami Herald and co-bureau chief of the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau.

The report also tells the tale of citizen Joel Chandler, who has made hundreds of requests for public contractor documents, but in 2014, had 56 percent of those requests denied. This is despite a law passed in 2013 requiring public agencies to include new provisions in service contracts confirming the contractors’ obligations under the Public Records Act.

In some cases, Chandler said, his requests have been thrown on the ground by those he’s sought records from. He claims he’s been accused of trespassing and threatened with violence.

The report also dismissed much of the 2013 campaign finance measures enacted by the Legislature, such as the elimination of committees of continuous existence, stopping these fundraising groups from spending unlimited and untraceable money on political candidates. These committees were immediately replaced, however, with political action committees that are easier to track but also have no spending caps.

The report notes that lobbying regulations remain “weak,” in Florida, but says that there have been some improvements in recent years. Those include the reform package that established a two-year calling off period during which former legislators are forbidden from lobbying any state agency, and a 2014 law that closed a loophole that previously allowed water management districts in Florida to claim that their lobbyists did not have to register.

“Finally, the reform package permitted the formerly toothless Commission on Ethics to garnish wages of elected officials who owe fines, and to pursue investigations after receiving referrals from law enforcement or the governor’s office,” the report says.” Additionally, it required that high-ranking government officials’ financial disclosure forms be posted in a searchable database online.”

There are 13 different categories in which the states are ranked. The highest rank for Florida is being listed second in the nation in legislative accountability.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.