Opponents trap Florida Senate ethics bill in committee

TALLAHASSEE — A proposal to ban state lawmakers from influencing bills that could earn or cost them money is headed to the cutting-room floor for the fifth consecutive year.

Why? Because of the process, not the policy.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos and his staff effectively deep-sixed the ethics bill for 2012 by assigning it to five different committees before the beginning of the legislative session.

That means to get to the full Senate the measure would have to first pass five different committee stops, an impossibly high hurdle in a nine-week session.

The ethics proposal, sponsored by Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, would prevent senators from proposing, participating or voting on bills that could provide special, private benefit for themselves, their families, their employers or their colleagues.

Rules that ban conflict-of-interest voting exist in the House and in 44 other state Legislatures. Local government officials also can't vote in such cases.

"There used to be a feeling of shame up here where you wouldn't want to propose something from which you would personally benefit. … I don't see that anymore," Dockery said.

The bill, SB 552, passed its first committee unanimously but is not scheduled for a second hearing.

A look at committee assignments for other bills — which is left to the discretion of Haridopolos — explains the behind-the-scenes power play.

A weaker ethics bill, SB 1650, sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, was assigned to three committees. The proposal to privatize South Florida prisons appeared before just two committees, despite the fact that it faced scant debate last year and was inserted into the budget in the final weeks of session, a process a judge later ruled illegal.

Senate and House leaders often stall bills if they have distaste for the legislation or for the bill's sponsor, said Peter Butzin, state chairman of Common Cause Florida.

Dockery made enemies of Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and others by vocally opposing bills on the creation of SunRail, prison privatization and reapportionment, he said.

She was the only Republican to vote against the Senate's redistricting plan last month.

"Leadership in the Senate and the House are so powerful, and the rest of the legislators are really just pawns in the process," Butzin said. "Paula Dockery found herself on the wrong side of leadership."

Haridopolos denied foul play and said he agreed with his staff's suggestion to place Dockery's bill in five committees because it touches on that many subject areas.

"If she's concerned about the bill, she can come and visit with me," Haridopolos said. "I fully support John Thrasher's bill."

The Thrasher bill requires that senators place assets that may pose a conflict into blind trusts. But it doesn't forbid senators from debating or from "participating" by making threats and deals, Dockery says.

"Just voting isn't that big of a deal," she said. "It's the arm-twisting and the amount of pressure, especially if the legislator is someone important and powerful."

Senate rules require that legislators disclose conflicts within 15 days but place few other restrictions.

Conflicts are inevitable, because lawmaking is a part-time job that usually pays about $30,000 per year, and most legislators have other jobs and businesses.

Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, filed notice of a voting conflict on the prison privatization bill awaiting a vote on the Senate floor. His wife is a lobbyist for four groups that oppose privatization. But Evers has 3,000 correctional officers and 15 state-run prisons in his district, so he plans to vote, he said.

In 2009, Rep. Baxter Troutman, R-Winter Haven, did not vote on legislation to create SunRail because his family's distribution center and warehouse owned land near a proposed rail hub and did business with CSX Transportation, the company involved in the deal.

In the Senate, budget chairman JD Alexander, Troutman's cousin and head of the company, voted for the same bill.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, has faced questions about his reorganization of the Florida Citrus Commission and overhaul of the citrus code in light of the fact that his he and his family are key players in the state's citrus industry.

That would be legal, even under Dockery's bill, which only forbids lawmakers from influencing special, private benefits. "If you're an insurance agent, and you do a bill that impacts all insurance agents, that's okay," she said. "It just can't benefit you personally."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com.

Opponents trap Florida Senate ethics bill in committee 02/06/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 6, 2012 11:12pm]

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