The House and Senate are advancing proposals that would create a public-records exemption for information about lawmakers, including their home addresses and phone numbers, but opponents question how the measures would interact with a requirement that lawmakers live in their districts.
Supporters of the proposals (SB 1488 and HB 1207) said an exemption would increase safety for lawmakers, as they have received threats and seen groups of people show up at their homes.
The Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee voted 5-1 on Wednesday to approve the Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.
“We’ve had some situations where people have gotten that public information and have used that to harass and picket and threaten us at our homes,” Stargel, the powerful chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said.
Changes made to the Senate bill Wednesday would require lawmakers to “opt in” to receive the records exemption and also would exclude state Cabinet members from being able to request exemptions, aligning the bill with the House version.
The proposals also would require lawmakers seeking the records exemption to provide a “written statement that he or she has made a reasonable effort to protect the identification and location information from being accessible through other means available to the public.”
Information about lawmakers’ spouses and children also would be kept private under the measures.
Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who is chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said he has feared for his family’s safety after people showed up at his home while he was traveling.
“I will tell you, twice in the last two years people showed up at my house when I was not there, and my wife does have little kids,” Gruters said, adding that the people were “really going, what I would say over the line, looking for me on certain issues.”
Gruters said he has since moved to a gated community for added security.
Such records exemptions already exist for information about judges, state attorneys and public defenders, and proponents have argued that legislators should get similar protections.
The proposal was met with skepticism Wednesday by Sen. Victor Torres, a Kissimmee Democrat who pointed to the legal requirement that lawmakers live in their districts. Torres was the only member of the Senate committee to vote against Stargel’s bill.
“How would constituents know if a senator or representative lives in the district they represent?” Torres asked.
“When you file your original paperwork running for office, you state where you live and that it is within the district,” Stargel answered. “Nothing impedes a person from filing an ethics complaint or a question, if they’ve questioned whether you’ve written accurate information.”
The only other Democrat on the panel, Sen. Linda Stewart of Orlando, said she supports the bill because she received a death threat in recent months, prompting her to get law enforcement involved
The sponsor of the House version, Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia, said he “would expect” the state Division of Elections to redact lawmakers’ home addresses in documents kept on the state elections website. Beltran’s bill was approved in a 12-4 vote last week by the House Government Operations Subcommittee.
“Do you think that shielding the address of a state House member or member of the state Senate would make it easier for people to be dishonest about where they live, knowing that it would be substantially harder for the press or the media, for example, to confirm someone’s home address?” asked Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando.
But Beltran pointed to current lawmakers who have held positions in which they were granted public-records exemptions.
“A lot of us are former prosecutors, there’s former jurists in the House … other former officials who do get that redaction. So that’s not been an issue to my knowledge, that anyone who is eligible for that exemption under any of those capacities has used that to run in a district that they do not live in,” Beltran said.
The Senate bill needs approval from the Rules Committee before it could go to the full Senate. The House bill needs approval from two more committees to reach the House floor.
–Ryan Dailey, News Service of Florida