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Vote on university 'sunshine' exemption exposes cracks in House Democratic caucus

@tbtia & @kmcgrory

At a meeting of House Democrats before the afternoon session, Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, of Tallahassee, called a proposal to shield universities' discussions about prospective donors "dangerous."

"It is an attempt to privatize our universities," she said.

She noted that there were enough Democrats to defeat HB 115 because public records exemptions require a two-thirds vote. Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, made a suggestion.

"Let's kill the bill to kill the bill," she said.

Reed's idea prompted cheers and applause from the caucus. Some members chanted her name.

Minority Leader Perry Thurston hesitated to take a formal position, joking that some members of the caucus would alert House Speaker Will Weatherford before the vote. But he urged his fellow House Democrats to stand together on the floor.

That didn't happen.

Nine Democrats voted in favor of HB 115, making the finally tally 83-33. At least four of those Democrats needed to vote "no" in order to defeat the proposal. There are 45 members in the House Democratic caucus, though two were absent today.

Democrat Dave Kerner, of Lake Worth, spoke in support of the bill from the House floor. He discouraged his colleges from opposing the bill "because you were told not to vote on it.”

The bill has mostly flown under the radar. The First Amendment Foundation, which champion's the state open meetings and open record laws, chose not to oppose or support the measure. The foundation is also neutral on the Senate counterpart, SB 318, which is one committee away from a floor vote.

The proposal would allow university direct-support organizations -- think foundations and booster clubs -- to privately discuss plans to seek research funding or strategies for supporting research.

Rehwinkel Vasilinda has opposed HB 115 all along, casting the lone "no" vote during an early committee meeting. The other two committee votes were unanimous with numerous Democrats voting in favor of the bill.

Part of what worries her: a recent report that showed Florida State University was the second highest recipient of Koch brothers money in 2012. The $297,000 the school received was a small fraction of its total private funding, but the potential of secrecy in future donations concerns Rehwinkel Vasilinda.

The discussion at today's pre-session caucus meeting seemed to have encouraged most Democrats stand in solidarity. If nothing else, they would have sent a message and reminded the Republican majority that Democrats could still shake things up.

Except, they didn't.

Unlike the House Republican caucus, where dissent is rare, Democrats are much more likely to have defectors. Last week's unsuccessful attempt to repeal "Stand Your Ground" is another example.

"I was very dissapointed," Rehwinkel Vasilinda said after the meeting, noting she and other Democrats had already identified which colleagues sided with the majority. "We could have easily killed that bill."

Thurston was more diplomatic. There was never an official caucus position, he reminded reporters, and members are allowed to vote their conscious.

It's important to note that this is the time of session where the budget is at the front of everyone's minds, and Democrats are hoping to play nice with the Republican leadership in hopes of getting favorable consideration of their spending priorities. Plus, this was a bill many of them had already voted to approve and the universities in many of their own backyards wanted it.

The Democrats who voted in favor of HB 115:

  • -Rep. Mike Clelland of Longwood
  • -Rep. Katie Edwards of Sunrise
  • -Rep. Dave Kerner of Palm Springs
  • -Rep. Jared Moskowitz of Coral Springs
  • -Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg
  • -Rep. Joe Saunders of Orlando
  • -Rep. Dwayne Taylor of Daytona Beach
  • -Rep. Jim Waldman of Coconut Creek
  • -Rep. Alan Williams of Tallahassee