TALLAHASSEE — For the third straight year, state Sen. Paula Dockery is pushing for a state law to prevent legislators from voting on issues that would personally benefit them or their relatives.
Roundly ignored by fellow senators the past two years, the Lakeland Republican could not even get a hearing on the idea. Now, Dockery, who's running for governor on a platform of restoring trust in government, says she has a better chance of progress because of a string of corruption scandals in Florida.
"We feel the public's level of trust for government officials is at an all-time low. We need to restore trust and faith in government," Dockery said. "If you are going to personally benefit, you should recuse yourself from participation."
Dockery and Rep. Adam Fetterman, D-Port St. Lucie, have filed bills for consideration in the session that begins March 2. Her proposal (SB 438) does not carry penalties for a violation. She said a violation should require disciplinary action by a lawmaker's colleagues.
The House has a rule that prohibits members from voting on a bill if the lawmaker "knows or believes" it would benefit him or her personally. The Senate has no such rule, but senators are required to file a conflict-of-interest statement no more than 15 days after voting.
In Florida's "citizen Legislature," lawmakers are part-timers who can hold outside employment. Many hold jobs in professions regulated by the Legislature, such as real estate, insurance or contracting. Some legislators work for state universities or community colleges and routinely vote on matters affecting their employers, including the state budget.
But those votes are not considered conflicts of interest under state law if they benefit a class, not a specific legislator.
It's also unlikely that Dockery's proposal would have prohibited former House Speaker Ray Sansom from acting on behalf of a hometown college, because he did not take a job at the college until long after he secured state funding for the school.
As a legislator, Dockery has been a strong supporter of high-speed rail or a bullet train in Florida. Her husband, C.C. "Doc" Dockery, largely financed the 2000 initiative to put the bullet train in the Constitution (voters later repealed it). The St. Petersburg Times reported in 2001 that Dockery served on the House Transportation Committee that heard a bullet-train pitch.
Dockery said an assertion that she and her husband owned land in the train's proposed path were unfounded.
"It was shown unequivocally that we owned no property that was going to benefit. We owned no stocks that were going to benefit. We didn't have a business interest. … But I welcome that scrutiny," Dockery said.
Dockery and Fetterman urged Floridians to e-mail their support for a stronger voting conflict law. The bills will likely be steered to committees headed by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill.
"The fact that this bill has never before been given a hearing is clear evidence of the degree to the which this process marginalizes reform minded politicians, regardless of party," Fetterman said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.