Florida businesses may need the Florida Legislature to do what seemingly is impossible in COVID-19 politics: work in a bipartisan manner.
Unless Republican leaders in the Legislature agree to alter a broad public records exemption bill or persuade Democrats to support the proposal, complaints filed against Florida businesses accused of violating the proposed vaccine mandate ban will be available for public review.
That’s because unlike other bills under consideration in the Special Session on COVID-19 vaccines, the public record exemption bill requires a supermajority vote to pass. That means 66% of the members have to support the proposal, not a simple majority.
Already there are signs the broadly written public record exemption bill could be in trouble, at least in the House.
Democratic Tampa Rep. Fentrice Driskell, who got her law degree from Georgetown University, said the bill was “fatally flawed” because it runs afoul of a constitutional requirement that any public records exemption be narrowly drawn.
Rep. Joseph Geller, a Democrat from Aventura, said “I hope our caucus is going to be united in voting against this tomorrow.”
Given that Democrats voted in a bloc Tuesday to support an amendment to narrow the bill, Geller’s words could be more than an idle threat.
Geller and Driskell made their remarks at a Democratic press conference after the House adjourned Tuesday but not before setting up for final passage the four bills being considered during the Special Session.
HB 3B would, as currently written, keep secret the identities of those who file complaints about their employers with the Florida Department of Legal Affairs.
Geller said House Democrats also believe the information about employees who filed the complaints should remain exempt from the public records law.
“We appeal to the Republicans to join us in doing that in a way that was still constitutional.” said Geller, who noted HB 3B shields more than the employees’ names.
“They don’t just make the information about the complainant secret, protected, because there’s a purpose for that,” Geller said. “They keep the whole complaint, who it’s against, what the problem is, they keep that secret, and they keep the investigation of it secret. And that simply can’t be. It’s not narrowly drawn. The public has a right to know that.”
Before filing an amendment to HB 3B, Geller told Florida Politics he spoke to the bill sponsors informing them the amendment was being filed. Geller also said he told them he would be open to potential changes, and he encouraged them to file an amendment to his amendment if necessary.
“Let’s legislate,” Geller recalled saying to the bill sponsors. “They declined the invitation to fix their own bill.”
While Geller’s amendment fell short of passing, House Democrats did vote in a bloc to support his efforts, something Geller noted during the press conference.
“If we got the same 42 that supported my amendment voting against their bill, then that bill doesn’t pass. And that’s what should happen,” Geller said. “At the end of the day, I’ll just say in general, not even on my amendment, why are we here? What is the purpose of this?”
Gov. Ron DeSantis called lawmakers into a surprise Special Session to pass policy that makes it illegal for employers to require vaccines for employment. After behind the scenes negotiations, the House and Senate released four identical bills to address the Governor’s concerns.
The Session has been criticized by Democrats who claim DeSantis is playing politics to appease his Republican base. A group of physicians has criticized DeSantis as well, saying his policies put Floridians at risk.
Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book did not respond to a request for comment. But Senate Democrats who sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee voted against SB 4B, that chamber’s version of the public records exemption proposal. The bills are identical.
“Frequently you see people change how they vote” on public record exemption bills,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Sen. Kelli Stargel said after the meeting.
While she supports the public records exemption, Stargel said passing the underlying ban on mandatory staff vaccinations is more important. That ban is contained in HB 1B and SB 2B.
“For me, personally, I believe what’s at stake, which is the ability to have the freedom and not be fired because of what your employer is doing, outweighs the decision of that employer to be able to remain private,” Stargel said. “But I hope that we would pass the public records exemption.”