You know the Florida Senate is in trouble when it has less regard for ethics reform than Congress does. Senate President Mike Haridopolos has used his procedural powers to kill a commonsense effort to impose a modicum of ethical standards on state legislators who can't recognize a conflict of interest when they see one. When the Legislature sinks lower than Congress, it's time for some re-examination in Tallahassee.
For five years, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, has waged a quixotic crusade for a reasonable proposal to ban state lawmakers from influencing bills that would have a direct financial impact on themselves, family members, friends or employers. The bill (SB 552) would go beyond banning legislators from voting on bills that specifically financially benefit them or others close to them (something the House already handles through a rule). Dockery's bill would also prohibit lawmakers with conflicts of interests from trying to influence their colleagues' votes.
Haridopolos has effectively killed the legislation for the second year, this time by assigning it to five different committees for consideration, where it is certain to die by delay, indifference and cronyism. And he has deflected criticism by embracing another so-called ethics bill (SB 1560) offered by the former House speaker and current Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, that won't be nearly so effective in stopping insider dealing.
Thrasher's plan would allow public officers — including state lawmakers — to place their assets in a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest. That makes sense for the governor and Cabinet members, who hold full-time offices and are elected statewide. But it's not reasonable to expect compliance from members of the part-time Legislature. Nor does the bill do anything to prevent lawmakers from engaging in backroom deal-making, which is the breeding ground for ethical compromises.
Conflict-of-interest voting bans already exist in the Florida House, 44 other state legislatures and local governments. But the Florida Senate requires only that senators disclose a conflict within 15 days — and precious little else. For example, Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, voted on legislation that created a Central Florida commuter rail that is expected to benefit his family's business interests. His cousin, then-Rep. Baxter Troutman, R-Winter Haven, abstained from the vote under House rules.
Just days ago, cowed by a CBS News 60 Minutes expose, the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation that would end a long-standing practice that allowed lawmakers and thousands of other federal government employees to engage in insider trading based on knowledge gleaned from their public service employment. The legislation should easily pass the U.S. House.
If the United States Congress can finally address the exploitation of public office for individual financial gain, it is not too much to suggest that the Florida Senate pass Dockery's ethics reform legislation. In a legislative session that so far has achieved little, looking worse than Congress may be the greatest accomplishment.