Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Politics

Sweeping Senate ethics bill clears committee

TALLHASSEE — Political ethics experts say they are impressed by many of the items in the proposed bill that a Senate ethics committee unanimously approved Tuesday.

"This sounds like Florida may be taking a big step forward in refining its ethics regulations," said Edwin Bender, executive director of The National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that analyzes the influence of money in politics in all 50 states. "As far as addressing the public's trust in the state Legislature, this is a good step."

Touted as the most far-reaching ethics reform in 36 years, the bill would:

• Extend a ban that currently prohibits lawmakers from lobbying their colleagues in the legislative branch for two years after leaving office to include the executive branch (the governor's office and state agencies);

• Prohibit lawmakers and all elected officials in Florida from accepting a state administrative job after getting elected;

• Require lawmakers to abstain from voting on issues that benefit them or family members;

• And prohibit lawmakers from using political committees for personal expenses.

The bill doesn't have a companion bill yet in the House, where Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has also declared ethics reform to be a top priority.

"We will shop it over there once we have a bill," said Senate President Don Gaetz, who thanked the chair of the committee, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, for the bill's quick passage Tuesday.

Latvala said he isn't naïve about the bill's chances, but said the committee's unanimous support, including from Democrats and representing a third of the Senate, boosts its chances.

"It sends a strong message," Latvala said.

Even Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, voted for it. The former House Speaker joined the lobbying firm Southern Strategy in 2001. He said he supported the prohibition on lobbying the governor's office and state agencies even though that's what he did in 2001 and 2002.

"I didn't have to do that," Thrasher said. "We had enough people in the firm who knew the governor (who was then Jeb Bush) that I could have done something else. But I'm for it. It's a perception issue, and there are a lot of perceptions out there that create realities."

But Thrasher said he didn't see closing the revolving door as necessary.

"I'm a firm believer that everyone deserves to make a living, so I think it goes a little far,'' he said. "But look, Sen. Latvala has worked hard on the bill. It's not a problem to me."

Experts say it still will be quite a feat if the bill passes with the tough measures intact.

"Most states don't ban lawmakers from lobbying the executive branch, so Florida is ahead of the game," said Bob Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies, who drafted California's 1974 ethics law. "But my experience is that legislation like this doesn't go anywhere. Legislators don't like to put restrictions on themselves."

Particularly presiding officers in the House. The last two speakers, Dean Cannon and Larry Cretul, work now for Capitol Insight, a lobbying firm that represents clients like Walt Disney World Resort, the Florida Association of Realtors, and The Villages, a 55-and-up community in Central Florida bankrolled by one of the largest contributors to the Republican Party, Gary Morse. Cannon is now listed as a lobbyist to the executive branch, something the bill would prohibit.

"It's a farce the way the system works now," Latvala told reporters on Tuesday. "You have a guy who is the presiding officer one year doing agency budgets, controlling life or death of the agencies, what they do and their programs, and next year they're lobbying them. One day after he leaves as speaker or president, he's going to lobby it. That just doesn't sound like good government. I'm pretty committed to that. I'm getting more committed to that every day."

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