Lawmaking under the cover of COVID-19

The Florida Legislature had quite a time in its now concluded 60-day session — quite a time passing legislation that will hurt Florida and Floridians — after limiting public access to testimony.

Public access, public comment and public protests hold governments accountable. When governments around the world restrict public participation, they can do whatever they want. Sadly, the 2021 Legislative Session came to the same end.

Typically, the Florida Capitol building is filled with activists, lobbyists, and visitors who come to watch the democratic process of lawmaking unfold. This year, however, the Capitol building was all but closed due to the highly contagious coronavirus. Concerned citizens who often travel miles to testify before committees about issues that matter to them were few in number as a result.

It didn’t have to be that way. After all, we know that Governor Ron DeSantis has completely opened the rest of the state. Bars, gyms, schools, and nursing homes are all now open. But not the Capitol. 

Why is every place else safe to congregate, but the halls of lawmaking are all off limits? The state that hails itself as a model of government in the sunshine was closed and dark. And our legislative leaders could have made different choices, if they cared about public participation. As we all know, there are multiple online platforms that are available for meetings. Countless organizations and companies use such platforms to conduct business safely. Leadership in the Florida legislature apparently didn’t get the memo.

Instead, to testify before a Senate committee, members of the public had to assemble at the nearby Civic Center and wait in a small and uncomfortable room before being called to testify remotely before a committee. If they were lucky, they received two minutes to make their case. Most of the time they received one minute or less. 

The streaming connection from the Senate to the claustrophobic basement of the Civic Center was hard to hear, often froze, and was unreliable. Our legislators, however, could take all the time they wanted to discuss and debate with one another in person. But maybe none of it mattered anyway: They largely ignored public comment. Not one citizen at the eight-hour Senate Rules Committee hearing spoke in favor of the Anti-Protest bill (HB 1); they all urged the Senators to vote against criminalizing public protests. The Committee passed it anyway.

In the House, large committee rooms were available, so lobbyists and members of the public were able to assemble in limited numbers. When called to the microphone, they were often informed that they could remove their mask, but the mic wasn’t sanitized before and after they testified. How comforting. Only people willing to put their health and their families’ health at risk came to testify in person.

The majority party in the legislature clearly played by their own rules and rushed bills through that attack our voting rights. Despite touting that Florida held a model election in 2020 unaffected by fraud, our legislators voted to limit our ability to vote by mail and drop our ballot into a designated ballot box.

In addition, our First Amendment right to protest has been chilled by the legislature’s approval of the so-called Anti-Riot bill (HB 1) and will also likely deter reporters from covering protests in person, thereby directly infringing freedom of the press. 

Additionally, in a sneaky maneuver, the legislature revived a discriminatory bill by attaching it as an amendment to an education bill. The amendment will prohibit transgender student-athletes from participating in sports that align with their true gender identity. Despite a Point of Order that the amendment was not germane to the bill, the legislature went ahead, heard it, and passed it along with the bill. 

The procedure is offensive, but the shaming and bullying of transgender athletes is worse.

Pretty cagey, huh? One wonders if these egregious maneuvers and passage of destructive bills like the anti-voter SB 90 would have occurred had the public had more opportunity to really weigh in. We will never know. 

But it may have been more than COVID-19 that the legislators were using as cover. When we allow public access to take even the slightest “hit” we start down a slippery path we will all regret later. True democracy requires participation of the people and a government that recognizes our voices matter. 

It’s likely it was the legislators who were hiding from the voters. And it may have to be the voters themselves who must pull down the curtain of the “Great and Powerful Oz” to show that transparency dispels deception and demands truth. 

Patricia Brigham is President of the League of Women Voters of Florida; Pamela C. Marsh is President of the First Amendment Foundation.