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Florida lawmakers advance ban on lobbying and self-dealing

The House approves a measure that puts penalties behind the ethics rules imposed by a constitutional change overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2018 to end the revolving door between public office and private lobbying.

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that will put teeth into the voter-approved law banning elected officials from using their public office for private gain was unanimously approved by the Florida House Wednesday and is headed to the state Senate.

There was no discussion. The measure puts penalties behind the ethics rules imposed by Amendment 12, the constitutional change overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2018 to end the revolving door between public office and private lobbying.

The constitutional amendment updates Florida law, which currently has no safeguards in place to stop state legislators from writing legislation that benefits their personal interests, and it extends the current two-year ban on legislators’ lobbying to six years.

Three components of the new law take effect at two different times:

▪ Starting Dec. 31, 2020, a prohibition takes effect on public officials and public employees using their public office to “disproportionately” benefit themselves, their spouse, children, employer or entities with which they have certain business interests.

▪ Starting Dec. 31, 2022, a six-year ban on lobbying exists for the following officials after they leave office: legislators and statewide elected officials, and local elected officials who serve on boards or commissions. State agency heads are prohibited from lobbying their former agencies. Judges and justices are barred from lobbying state government.

▪ Also taking effect Dec. 31, 2022, is a provision that bars public officers from lobbying while in office any political agency or governing body for anything related to policy, appropriations, or procurement (such as contracts).

The bills, HB 7009 and SB 7006, both impose penalties for violations. Penalties range from removing elected officials from office to fines and civil penalties on those no longer in office. It would be up to the state’s attorney general to prosecute any violators.

The measure was promoted by former Senate President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who presided over the chamber during the chaotic redistricting process in 2010-12. After the GOP-led Legislature’s maps were challenged as being unconstitutional, a court concluded that political operatives had conducted a shadow redistricting process that was “making a mockery” of the claims by Gaetz and other legislative leaders that the process had been transparent.

Gaetz is the father of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.

Amendment 12

In 2013, before the redistricting challenge was resolved, Gaetz made ethics reform his top priority. He tried and failed to get his fellow legislators to adopt a bill to require legislators to wait two years after they retire before they can return to lobby the executive branch. Current law only bans them from lobbying the Legislature for two years.

Gaetz tried again as a member of the Constitution Revision Commission, the citizen panel given the extraordinary power to recommend amendments to the state constitution every 20 years.

In 2018, the CRC agreed to put the proposal before voters, and Amendment 12 received nearly 79% of the vote. Florida now has what Gaetz has called “the nation’s highest, toughest ethical standards for public officers.”

Several legislators have made a career out of serving the Legislature part of the time but working as a lobbyist for special interests and clients before county commissions and Congress. Beginning in 2023, that would be illegal.

Lobbying firms also like to hire former House and Senate leaders because of the power they wield in Florida’s top-down legislative structure, which allows them to control the state’s $91 billion budget while in office and develop lasting relationships with lawmakers who remain in power after they leave.

Among the lawmakers who have joined the lobbying ranks after leaving office: former Miami Sen. Frank Artiles, who remains close to current House Speaker José Oliva; former House speakers Steve Crisafulli, Dean Cannon and Larry Cretul; and former Senate presidents Mike Haridopolos, Ken Pruitt, John Thrasher and Jim Scott.

Going out with a bang

Another provision in the law targets what Gaetz called “pay for play” and makes the practice of lawmakers using “their last year in office auditioning for lucrative landings in lobbying firms” now illegal. Gaetz explained in an an op-ed in his hometown newspaper.

“County commissioners are being paid by private companies to lobby before other local governments that have interlocking interests with the commissions on which they, themselves, serve,’’ Gaetz explained.

“State legislators take money to lobby for contracts before local government bodies that depend on those same legislators for state appropriations to fund the contracts. State lawmakers sell themselves to lobby federal congressmen on behalf of private interests. It’s pay for play and it ought to be against the law.

“You can be a paid lobbyist or you can be an elected official, but you can’t be both at the same time — serve private interests or serve the public interest.”

Gaetz, a self-made millionaire who founded a for-profit chain of hospice care companies, said the provision that outlaws self-dealing is aimed at politicians who “use their offices to grab goodies for themselves and those close to them.”

Defining ‘disproportionate’

The constitutional amendment now prohibits anyone from using his or her office for “disproportionate benefit,” and the Florida Commission on Ethics has written a definition for what “disproportionate benefit” will mean.

“Sadly, each of us knows about the road that was paved, the contract that slid sideways into friendly hands, the job that went to a relative, the zoning decision that turned out favorable for someone close to the decision-maker or the extra slice of appropriations carved for the legislator’s employer,’’ Gaetz wrote.

Many current and former legislators don’t like the new law.

Rep. Joe Geller, R-Aventura, said he thinks the amendment is “constitutionally suspect.”

“I have no plans to challenge it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone does,’’ he said.

Former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami-Dade Republican, lawyer, and a member of the Constitution Revision Commission that put the proposal on the ballot, voted against the six-year lobbying ban when it came before the commission in 2018.

“Lobbying has been deemed as a constitutionally protected free speech,” said Diaz, who is now a lobbyist with Ballard Partners.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, the chair of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, said he didn’t vote for the amendment in 2018 but on Wednesday he brought SB 7006 before the Senate Rules Committee, where it received a unanimous vote and no discussion.

“Whatever the voters decide, I’m totally committed to implementing what they ask,’’ he said. “I think it’s a big lesson in elections matter.”

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