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Senators relax contribution, conflict of interest rules

TALLAHASSEE — On a day devoted to a spirit of openness, the Florida Senate on Tuesday relaxed some disclosure standards adopted in a burst of reform four years ago.

The changes, which came as a surprise to most lawmakers, were introduced in a one-day session to install new leaders.

Two Republicans, Rep. Ray Sansom of Destin and Sen. Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach, became House speaker and Senate president, respectively.

The Senate eased a disclosure requirements for political committees some lawmakers use to collect unlimited contributions Lawmakers spend the money for campaigns and expenses, including meals and plane trips.

Until Tuesday, Senate rules required money raised and spent by such committees be reported within 10 days, but Atwater said he had problems raising money for high school band uniforms because the group's reporting requirements differed from the Senate's.

Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, the Senate Rules Committee chairman, said the change was needed to prevent senators from violating the rules by raising money for local charities.

The change's effect is uncertain because state law requires committee contributions be posted on a Web site within five business days.

Still, a watchdog group saw the decision as a bad sign.

"It appears to be a step backward in bringing some transparency to campaign financing," said Ben Wilcox of Common Cause Florida.

The House in 2006 eliminated most of the same disclosure rules.

Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, voted for the rule changes but said it's wrong for legislators to control such funds, even though he opened one himself.

Senators also changed the rules on conflicts of interest to say that they can vote on any issue even if they stand to personally benefit from the vote, though they must disclose the conflict. Previously, senators had to disclose a potential conflict, and the Senate president's office would advise whether they should vote or abstain.

Atwater and Sansom spent much of their acceptance speeches talking about Florida's economic woes.

"We have an economy that has slowed down and needs to be awakened," Sansom said. "We have an over-regulated workforce. We have citizens that seem to be exhausted with government, just talk to them."

Atwater said he will appoint a special committee to make recommendations aimed at helping the economy. He said he's open to a special session before March to fix the budget, which is facing large deficits due to massive revenue shortfalls.

Sansom offered no such proposals and has been cool to the idea of a special session. He said new revenue estimates due Friday would be the ultimate guide but noted that the Legislature has already given Gov. Charlie Crist the ability to dip into reserves.

Senators relax contribution, conflict of interest rules 11/18/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2008 8:16pm]
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