The 2013 legislative session doesn't start for more than a month, but it's already looking like a promising year for ethics reform. The challenge for legislative leaders is to maintain the momentum and commit to meaningful changes. Ethics laws are about ensuring that the public's interest — not public officials' self-interest — drives public policy decisions. Florida sure needs more of that.
The collection of proposed fixes assembled by Senate Ethics and Elections Committee chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, range from new restrictions on legislators' employment to giving the state ethics commission more tools to enforce financial disclosure laws. It is telling that senators have spent more time arguing some of the smaller details than the major issues. But combined, the provisions could address some of the absurdities of public life in Florida.
Consider the simple idea of no longer letting influential lawmakers pick up another administrative job from a public agency, like former House Speaker Ray Sansom did at Northwest Florida State College and scores of others have done over the years. (The ban would not affect lawmakers who were already public employees at the time they qualified as a candidate for office.)
Another provision would slow the revolving door in Tallahassee that sees so many powerful lawmakers move to the lobbying corps as consultants to cash in on their connections. The most recent case: former House Speaker Dean Cannon, who is now working on behalf of blue-chip clients. The bill would expand the two-year ban on lobbying the Legislature to include a ban on lobbying state agencies. Even more notably, it would prohibit employment at any firm, even as a strategic adviser, on issues that come before the Legislature.
Beyond Tallahassee, the bill shows some promise for improving public service. The law would extend from four years to 20 years the time the ethics commission has to collect fines for violating even the most basic ethics requirements, such as filing financial disclosure forms. Now, many politicians merely wait out the clock, denying voters a key tool to assess their financial and economic interests. The proposal also would enable the commission to file a lien on politicians' property if they won't otherwise pay. That should get their attention.
Other significant proposals include prohibiting state officials from voting on issues on which they or their family or business would enjoy a special private gain or loss. Lawmakers and state procurement employees would be barred from taking gifts from political committees or vendors — a reaction to the gross abuse of so-called committees of continued existence that many lawmakers use as little more than slush funds.
The bill is not perfect. Many details need more scrutiny, such as whether the proposed changes to CCEs are enough. Changes to how and when ethics complaints can be filed deserve more study. So does a plan for letting officials establish blind trusts to avoid voting conflicts.
Reform is still far from certain, as any single provision is likely to draw significant opposition in Tallahassee. Lawmakers are sure to grumble privately if not publicly. But Senate President Don Gaetz is to be commended for delivering a bold opening bid, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, who has led the charge on elections reform, will need to be just as strong. Retreat should not be an option.