Sunday, January 21, 2018
Opinion

Column: Hands in the cookie jar, again and again

Sometimes it seems like we are teachers, trying to inject just a little bit of knowledge into recalcitrant children.

Year after year, legislators are blistered for taking things from lobbyists who want something from them. Year after year, we write about it.

Sometimes lawmakers vote to change the rules as though they are saying, "Stop me before I sin again.''

It doesn't work.

Now we have a group of lawmakers routinely riding around the state on airplanes owned by a lobbyist who represents a gambling interest.

How in the world could a veteran senator sitting as chairman of a committee that will determine the future of the gambling industry think it's okay to accept frequent airplane rides on planes owned by a gambling lobbyist?

And why would House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Pasco County Republican, be among those riding along?

Oh yes, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, and the others paid for the flights. But really. Anyone who travels from Tallahassee to anywhere else in Florida can tell you how difficult and expensive it's become to travel by air to the state capital. And we all know how much a legislator who has to travel back and forth would appreciate a bit of help.

The luxury of having a private airplane at your beck and call is worth more than mere money. Richter, a bank president with a net worth of more than $4 million, can afford to pay. Perhaps he now realizes it would have been better to hitch a ride on a private plane owned by one of the many companies that are not owned by lobbyists.

Or maybe not.

Seems like only yesterday legislators were telling us that free trips provided by lobbyist were not really gifts. They took white wing dove hunting jaunts to Mexico. They enjoyed private plane rides to Paris, Switzerland and Monaco. They spent days and nights at fancy hunting plantations in south Georgia.

That didn't work so well for the two dozen or so lawmakers who were charged with failing to report those free trips. Tallahassee State Attorney Willie Meggs charged them all with misdemeanors for failing to report. (And lawmakers returned the favor by cutting Meggs' budget.)

When we first wrote about the free trips that lawmakers were not reporting, legislators diligently returned to the Capitol and quickly changed the law. They erased the crime and made it a mere ethics violation.

You can't say they don't respond when their hands are caught in cookie jars.

A few more scandals drove legislators to make it unethical to accept any gift valued at more than $100. Even then some wanted to quibble. Couldn't we accept one golf club at a time, they asked.

Years later, after dozens of additional legislators got in trouble for taking things — trips to Canada and stuff like that — from the folks who want legislative favors, lawmakers got serious and made it illegal to take anything from lobbyists. Not even a cup of coffee.

Now some legislators want to change that law to allow some food and drink to be accepted at functions in Tallahassee when constituents come to town.

I don't really see anything wrong with letting lawmakers accept cake and coffee at a function put on by their hometown chamber of commerce or college. But it's hard to draw a line that allows anything without inviting trouble.

This is not a group of people overly endowed with common sense, and they do not learn from history.

Lucy Morgan is a retired state capital bureau chief and senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times. She wrote this exclusively for the Times.

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