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Three-step program to prevent Ray Sansom-type scandals in Florida

Ray Sansom surrendered the House speaker's job this week, but that won't end the controversy. Nor should it.

Sansom is still a legislator with the rank of a committee chairman, even as he seeks to fend off multiple investigations into his conduct involving Northwest Florida State College in Niceville.

But this story is much bigger than Ray Sansom. His fellow House Republicans, who risk suffering political damage from the public outrage caused by this fiasco, could draw positive lessons from it and possibly reclaim the mantle of accountability and transparency in government.

Here are three specific steps they might consider to prove to Floridians they intend to make sure Sansom's conduct is not repeated.

1. Prevent future legislators from accepting jobs at institutions that get state money.

This is the troubling connection that forced Sansom to quit his college job and was the biggest factor in his downfall. It does not pass the smell test for a powerful legislator like the House budget chairman to have such influence over how much money a college gets and then take a six-figure job there.

2. Open up the budget-writing process and stop the secret deals.

A single legislator should not be allowed to raid cash-rich accounts such as the Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, fund that Sansom used as a piggy bank for his college, adding $24.5 million to a $1 million request.

Sansom's fellow lawmakers should demand an end to it. If they won't, then college and university presidents, trustees, faculty members and students should demand that legislators prohibit a practice that allows politically connected schools to pick each others' pockets of taxpayer money and then, as Sansom did, proudly take credit for helping his community.

3. Ask voters to extend term limits from eight to 12 years.

This is probably a political impossibility, given that the Sansom affair has at least temporarily lowered the public's already mediocre opinion of the Legislature. (Why, voters would surely ask, should we let guys like Sansom hold office longer?)

The answer is because the problems Florida faces will never be resolved by a House with a revolving door.

Sansom, by his own account, is a small-town guy from Northwest Florida. He was ill prepared for the scrutiny and accountability that comes with being speaker. If he'd had more time to learn the ropes, he might have made better decisions, such as not taking the college job in the first place or quickly admitting that it was a mistake and taking full responsibility.

The Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida, a panel of leaders in both parties, recently recommended extending the limit, saying: "A slightly longer period would allow for additional information gathering and knowledge building for legislative leadership and retention of greater institutional memory, while meeting the original term-limit goal of expanding the opportunities for new legislative leadership."

Everybody in the state Capitol who analyzes Sansom's behavior cites term limits as a factor. Maybe eight isn't enough.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Three-step program to prevent Ray Sansom-type scandals in Florida 02/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 7, 2009 7:24pm]
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