Scott’s dinner with top Senators has his office rethinking get-togethersby Dara Kam | February 8th, 2011
Gov. Rick Scott, a few of his closest aides and three of the Senate’s most powerful lawmakers broke bread at the governor’s mansion last night, covering a variety of topics ranging from Ironman triathlons to Scott’s $65 billion budget. The dinner took place just a few hours after Scott released his first-ever budget to the public earlier in the day.
But questions about whether the dinner violated the spirit of Florida’s open government laws – if not the laws themselves – have Scott’s office reconsidering future soirees.
Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander and Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner and Sen. Don Gaetz – two probable future senate presidents – also discussed major league baseball and the use of psychotropic drugs on children at the hour-long dinner with Scott, his wife Ann, and Scott’s chief of staff Mike Prendergast, special advisor Mary Ann “Mac” Carter, special counsel Hayden Dempsey and communications director Brian Burgess. Two reporters also attended at Scott’s invitation.
The governor and Senate trio discussed in broad terms his request that lawmakers give him $800 million to attract new businesses to the state and help existing ones expand. Scott said he was told that the current process – requiring approval from a legislative committee before the economic development grants or tax credits can be spent – is too lengthy and has caused the state to lose some deals because other states swooped in.
Whether the lawmakers’ chat was a violation of state Sunshine Laws is unclear.
The Senate rules require that meetings at which three or more senators discuss legislative business be open to the public. “Legislative business” is defined as “issues pending before, or upon which foreseeable action is reasonably expected to be taken by, the Senate, a Senate committee, or a Senate subcommittee.”
The governor’s mansion is enclosed by a locked gate.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos’ spokesman David Bishop said he noticed the meeting in an abundance of caution in case the lawmakers and guv strayed into pending legislation. He said the notice was posted on the Senate’s website, but the link was removed the following morning.
First Amendment Foundation lawyer Jim Rhea said the law regarding open meetings and the legislature is “flexible” because it is so carefully worded.
“When the governor invites them for dinner as a social event, but then the Senate notices it, it sounds like it’s more than just a social event. It sounds like it’s a meeting and if it’s a meeting then it should be reasonably open to the public,” Rhea said.
The legislature is in charge of enforcing its own rules, including those regarding Sunshine Law and open meetings violations, not that any occurred at last night’s dinner.
But the spirit of law is designed to provide the public access to decision-making, Rhea said.
In general, Rhea said: “These are the sorts of meetings and discussions that would be better held in locations where there is more access.”
“I don’t think the spirit should preclude the governor from enjoying a nice evening with legislators,” said Burgess.
But Burgess said his office would reconsider inviting three or more lawmakers at one time – as he did with three powerful GOP House leaders late last month.
“Maybe we’ll pare it down so that there’s no question,” Burgess said. “We don’t want there to be any question about any violation of the law. But if there’s a question maybe we’ll pare the meetings down so we don’t cross that threshold of three or more or whatever.”
Gardiner, the Ironman athlete from Orlando, wanted to know if Scott was considering doing anything about expanding major league baseball in Florida, which has lost spring training to competitor Arizona in recent years.
Scott, a former part owner of the Texas Rangers, expressed interest in the spring training and said he had once been approached to buy the Kansas City Royals. Thanks but no thanks, Scott said he told the sellers (apparently they’re big losers).
Both teams, incidentally, hold their spring training in Arizona.
Carter, seated beside budget chief Alexander, issued what sounded like a dare to the GOP senators regarding what they do with his spending plan, which Scott rolled out at a tea party event Monday afternoon.
“The nation is watching you,” she said. “It’s a very fiscally conservative budget.”