Tallahassee could use a good scrubbing. • A House speaker resigns and is indicted after funneling $6 million in college money to an airport building sought by a campaign contributor. Cozy relationships between utility officials and Public Service Commission staff members overshadow rate cases. The arrests of two prolific South Florida campaign fundraisers leads investigators to the capital. An explosion of third-party political committees makes it more difficult than ever to track political influence. • When the Florida Legislature opens its annual session Tuesday, it has an opportunity to start cleaning up the mess. Here are five steps toward restoring faith in Florida government:
OPEN THE BUDGET
The Ray Sansom scandal illustrates how secret budget negotiations can lead to corruption. Sansom, while House budget chief, steered $6 million to Northwest Florida State College for an airport building that a political contributor intended to use as a hangar for his planes. Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul have created a new Web site to make it easier to view budget details. But Sansom's subterfuge would have been less likely if legislators on budget conference committees were required to always meet in public to discuss negotiations — not behind closed doors or over the telephone. That reform is one of several proposals aimed at increasing public scrutiny of dealmaking in the last week of session. But there's nothing stopping Atwater and Cretul from making changes immediately.
Sansom faces grand theft charges in criminal court — but no criminal ethics charges despite being handed a $110,000, unadvertised job at Northwest Florida State College after steering $35 million to the school. State law makes almost no provision for criminal sanctions when elected or appointed state officials abuse their public office for personal gain. Now lawmakers from both parties prudently have suggested tougher criminal laws and increasing penalties for officials who use their office in the commission of a crime. Some propose banning officials from voting on matters in which they have a conflict of interest, but that should not be necessary. Voters — if given notice of conflicts of interests — can decide at the ballot box if their elected representative voted with the public interest or a personal one.
The play-to-pay culture in Tallahassee has reached an absurd level. It is nearly impossible to timely determine who is spending what to influence legislation due to an explosion in third-party groups subject to little real-time financial disclosure. The Republican Party of Florida also has exploited a loophole in reporting requirements to disguise how contributions are spent.
Among the possible solutions: prohibit any elected official or candidate for state office from participating in or raising money for third-party groups; require third-party groups to disclose their contributions on the same schedule as the state political parties; and amend state law to clearly state that credit card statements from political parties must be submitted to the secretary of state's office.
EMPOWER the ETHICS COMMISSION
The Florida Ethics Commission is a toothless watchdog by legislative design, and it needs more power to make an impact. The commission has proposed a package of reforms, but one proposal is essential: Give the commission the power to launch an investigation. Now it must wait for a citizen complaint, which is often based on media reports. That restriction serves no public interest.
REFORM THE PSC
The Public Service Commission has cleaned up its act considerably since embarrassing episodes last year in which staff members were shown to have cozy relationships with Florida Power & Light employees. To ensure the reform sticks, lawmakers should finally embrace proposals made 18 years ago by a statewide grand jury after a similar scandal. It would require the agency to behave more like the courts. Commissioners and their immediate staff would be barred from communicating with utilities except in public meetings or public documents. Violators would be fined. And commissioners and their staff would have to wait four years, instead of two, after leaving the PSC before working for a utility or its subsidiary. There's no guarantee such provisions will mean user-friendly rates, but it should instill confidence that the PSC is an independent arbiter.