It’s no wonder people are disinterested in politics and our population is overrun with so-called “low information voters”. In Florida, at least, it’s damn near impossible for your average citizen to know what’s going on in the state legislature from day to day.
I’m an advocate for veterans’ issues, so it’s no surprise that I have been doing what I can to ensure passage of some state house and senate bills that would classify veterans as residents for tuition purposes. For that reason, I have chosen not to write on that issue…conflict of interest and whatnot. I’m still not writing about it.
I followed the bills closely, even used those handy little tracking features on the chambers’ respective websites. I sent emails to committee members’ offices and spoke to aides on the phone. I was happy to watch as co-sponsors piled on the house bill. And then…nothing. The bill never moved out of committee. It didn’t die, it just didn’t move.
There it was: just sitting there on the website. I checked my Florida House iPad app every day, patiently waiting. Nothing. Until one day I got a celebratory email from the bill’s original sponsor. Apparently the bill’s language had been folded in to some other bill, cleared committee, and subsequently passed on the house floor. Great! But why was this the first time I had heard of any of this. I fell for a bait and switch! At least it was a pleasant one…this time.
It’s safe to say I follow politics a bit closer than the average citizen, but even I wasn’t able to properly follow a bill that I really, really cared about. What’s the deal? Why is this so difficult? I think this says a lot about the shadowy dealings that are inherent to politics. Anyone can check out opensecrets.com or followthemoney.com to find information on campaign contributions and the like, but the interfaces supplied to track the actual process of lawmaking are abysmal.
Transparency: What a buzzword! Everyone talks about it, but what does it really mean when it’s so problematic to keep track of basic legislation. How can average Floridians have a voice in the policy debate when they can’t even follow the conversation. Sure, big bills having to do with healthcare, K12 education, and taxes gain lots of media attention, but smaller bills just get lost in the shuffle.
The state legislature has a website called TransparencyFlorida.gov, which they describe this way: “The Florida Legislature created Transparency Florida to provide the public with unprecedented access to state government spending information by posting Florida’s operating budget and associated expenditure records online.” I find it interesting that “transparency” seems to be defined as “knowing where the money is going”. While there is certainly value in showing citizens where their tax dollars are being spent, it’s a sort of ex post facto manner of running an open government. It’s great to know who is getting what. It’s even better to help decide who gets what.
John Doe Floridian doesn’t have a lobbyist. He can’t call a press conference or get a committee chair on the phone when he has an issue. So while he’ll be able to easily learn how the cash is being spent later, he’ll have a much harder time figuring how those decisions were made in the first place.
Say goodbye to your dog kennel noise ordinance bill. That new law that affects your small industry? Who knows where that went to die? One has no way of knowing what deals legislators are making behind closed doors. Without constant communication with law makers, normal citizens are effectively shut out of the policy making process.
If Tallahassee is serious about transparency, they have got to find a way to make the legislative process more accessible to Floridians. Otherwise, it’s all good ole’ boys and smoke filled rooms.