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Putting ethics atop the agenda

TALLAHASSEE

Florida's so-called citizen Legislature might be a bargain for taxpayers, but it comes at a heavy price: a lack of public confidence.

The problem is so glaring even to lawmakers that they can't ignore it any longer. In a major break from business as usual, they will make ethics a top priority in the annual session that starts Tuesday.

The 160 people who write the laws in the fourth-largest state serve part-time and are paid less than $30,000 a year, a modest salary that has not changed in the past decade. But many of them walk an ethical tightrope in Tallahassee because they hold outside employment in fields that conflict with their lawmaking duties. In some cases, they use their positions of public trust to leverage lucrative outside jobs at schools or colleges that depend on the Legislature for money.

"Our members come from all walks of life," George Levesque, the Senate's attorney, told reporters at a briefing on ethics issues. "The price for this benefit are inherent conflicts of interest: the engineer or doctor who practices under the laws that he writes, the teacher who teaches under the same legislation that they vote on."

Legislators can vote on matters that affect their professions as long as it does not affect their personal pocketbook by creating a "special private gain or loss." That is a standard that's easy to get around. To make matters worse, legislators are not required to disclose a conflict until 15 days after a questionable vote.

In Florida, a citizen Legislature is a conflicted one.

Lawmakers moonlight at colleges, hospitals, even law firms whose members lobby the Legislature. It's all legal.

"If you got rid of every legislator who worked for a community college, university, hospital or law firm that lobbies the Legislature, you couldn't get a quorum," said lobbyist Sam Bell, a former Democratic lawmaker.

It's common for lawmakers with medical expertise to serve on health care committees, for insurance agents to write insurance legislation and for trial lawyers to craft laws affecting the legal profession. And when their lawmaking careers are over, they come back through the Capitol's revolving door as lobbyists and earn a nice living seeking to influence their former colleagues.

For the first time in decades, legislative leaders see a system so flawed that they hope to change it.

Led by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who has seen a series of ethical lapses by local Panhandle politicians, political momentum has built in the Capitol to address voting conflicts, outside employment, financial disclosure and the revolving door from lawmaking to lobbying.

"Too many people are looking at public office as an opportunity for private gain instead of public service," Gaetz said.

He's most critical of the practice of legislators using public office, especially a seat on a budget-writing committee, to secure work at a taxpayer-funded school, college or hospital in what Gaetz calls "a walking around job."

To underscore the Senate's emphasis on ethics, the ethics package, managed by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is ready for a full Senate vote on the session's opening day.

The bill (SB 2) sets conditions on outside public employment by lawmakers; requires ethics training for elected officials; requires online access to their financial disclosure forms; and slows the revolving door by prohibiting ex-legislators from associating with any firm that deals with the Legislature — whether that firm lobbies or not — for two years after leaving office.

The latter change was triggered by former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who formed a lobbying firm soon after he left office in November. The Constitution bars former lawmakers such as Cannon from lobbying the Legislature for two years after leaving office, but he has secured a number of clients to lobby the executive branch instead.

With the spotlight suddenly and probably briefly on the uncomfortable subject of the public's faith in elected officials, some lawmakers want to seize the moment and go farther.

Freshman Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, says Florida should switch to a full-time Legislature, like many other big states. His bill, which is unlikely to pass, would raise legislators' pay and restrict outside employment to reduce potential conflicts.

"The idea of a citizen Legislature is an antique," Clemens said.

In a state as big as Florida, a 60-day session and occasional hearings the rest of the year don't work anymore, he said, and leads to poor outcomes such as restrictions on early voting that will likely be repealed this session.

"We produce a rushed product and that's bad for Floridians," Clemens said. "We cram as many ideas as we can, good or bad, into 60 days, and we push legislation through that hasn't been properly vetted."

Clemens said the voting conflict law should be changed to stop lawmakers from casting votes affecting their employers. He drafted the language to an ethics bill but withdrew the amendment, he said, after some senators privately asked him to do so — a citizen Legislature at work.

"Members of the Legislature,'' Clemens said, "are still interested in protecting their fiefdoms."

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Putting ethics atop the agenda 03/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 5:19pm]

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