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  1. Florida Politics

Corcoran's new code of House conduct targets Capitol's 'good-old-boy' culture

Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land 'O Lakes, is taking aim at the budget of Visit Florida, Gov. Rick Scott's prized tourism marketing arm. [Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times]
Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land 'O Lakes, is taking aim at the budget of Visit Florida, Gov. Rick Scott's prized tourism marketing arm. [Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 25, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's incoming House speaker, Rep. Richard Corcoran, issued a new code of conduct Thursday for lawmakers and lobbyists to attack what he calls the "good-old-boy culture" in Tallahassee.

The rules include stricter lobbyist disclosure requirements, limits on communication between lawmakers and lobbyists, and a ban on lawmakers flying on lobbyists' aircraft, even if they pay their way.

"The Florida House will set the standard for others to emulate," said Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican, who became speaker Tuesday when new rules were voted on by the full 120-member House, which includes 46 rookie lawmakers.

Previous coverage: Incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran bans 'texting while legislating.'

Corcoran, 46, has an impatient and sometimes confrontational approach. He voiced contempt for the status quo when he was designated speaker last year.

"The enemy is us," he told his colleagues, most of whom like Corcoran are Republicans, including the GOP's state party chairman, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill.

Several rules directly attack what Corcoran calls a system of conflicts of interest, secrecy in budgeting and too-cozy relationships between legislators and lobbyists.

Among the proposed House changes:

• Every lawmaker-sponsored budget item must also be filed as a stand-alone piece of legislation by the first day of the session, which begins in March.

• Lobbyists must file a notice of appearance on every bill, amendment and budget item they seek to influence. They are currently required by law only to register for each paid client.

• Lobbyists can't send emails or text messages to House members in committee meetings or floor sessions, a practice Corcoran says would trigger "justifiable outrage" if the public knew more about it.

• House members must disclose new employment from a public entity that gets state money, such as a state college, and they can't have business or financial relationships with lobbyists or their clients and they can't lobby local governments while holding office.

• House members who leave office can't return as lobbyists for six years. The current law is two years.

• The biggest change is the new requirement that every budget line-item be a stand-alone bill, backed by budget documents that must answer about 40 questions.

"Nobody will be able to sneak things into the budget at the end," Corcoran said. "We have a set of rules that are the best in the nation for transparency and openness."

In addition, House members can no longer fly on private planes owned by lobbyists or their clients, even if they pay the commercial rate as current state law allows.

Free travel is banned by a decade-old gift law and ethics laws, but the pay-to-fly practice has been approved by the Commission on Ethics if lawmakers pay the lowest commercial fare on the same route.

Some lawmakers fly on lobbyists' aircraft to and from home or to events such as the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby and college football championship.

"That practice ends," Corcoran said.

Lobbyists, whose livelihood depends on good relations with the powerful speaker, reacted philosophically to Corcoran's plans.

"What he's really trying to do is professionalize the operation of his own members," lobbyist David Ramba said. "If he wants to bash us, that's fine. We'll adapt."

Ramba, a pilot, owns airplanes and has flown a number of lawmakers (usually state senators) so often that the arrangement is known in the Capitol as "Air Ramba."

He said lawmakers comply with payment requirements and very little lobbying occurs.

"If I'm on that plane, I'm flying it," Ramba said.

He said: "My planes are there for my clients. They're not there for legislators. This rule is an inconvenience for them, not us."

Ramba said the requirement to note an appearance on each and every issue struck him as a "little bit of overkill," and he said a lot of the texting between lobbyists and lawmakers is innocuous, such as setting up a future meeting (those texts are public records under Florida law).

Corcoran, whose brother Mike is a prominent lobbyist, will be speaker for two years, and is widely seen as a potential 2018 candidate for attorney general or governor. A populist crusade against Tallahassee insiders may appeal to voters.

Corcoran kept a tight lid on the changes as they were being written.

Corcoran's staff briefed members of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists on Thursday.

"I don't see the impending gloom and doom of people redressing their government," FAPL chairman David Mica said. "I see cultural changes that are going to take some getting used to."

The new rules will apply to all 120 House members and to every paid advocate who lobbies the House.

Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, who negotiated the changes with Corcoran, praised the new rules and said Republicans were receptive to their suggestions. "They were very receptive," Berman said.

The Florida Democratic Party earlier called Corcoran a hypocrite for "living large" on lobbyists' money as a staffer, candidate, political operative and elected official.

"It's hard to think of someone who has benefitted more from the very process he now self-righteously bemoans," the party said in a statement last year.

But Ben Wilcox of the watchdog group Common Cause said Corcoran's status as an insider gives his plan credibility.

"I think that his inside experience gives him a unique perspective to propose reforms that he knows are needed," he said.

Wilcox said a ban on lobbyist-provided plane trips is long overdue. He said the cut-rate charter flights are a loophole in the 2006 law that banned legislators from accepting gifts from lobbyists.

Following Tuesday's election, the Florida House includes 79 Republicans and 41 Democrats, with one Miami-Dade seat still subject to a recount.

More than a third of the members, 46 out of 120, make up the freshman class of 24 Republicans and 22 Democrats.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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