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  1. Florida Politics

Bousquet: Sen. Gaetz keeps 'ethics conversation' going in Tallahassee

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is the bill’s main sponsor.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is the bill’s main sponsor.
Published Apr. 21, 2015

"Ethics in government" might strike some people as an oxymoron. But it's a serious subject, it's back before the Legislature, and ethics watchdogs like what they see.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is the main sponsor of an ethics bill (SB 1372) that passed the Senate Rules Committee on Monday. The bill includes these changes:

• Every city and county must require that any lobbyist — someone who has paid to influence decisions — register as a lobbyist and pay an annual fee of up to $40. The registration requirement, which already applies to the state's five water management districts, would be extended to similar special districts that oversee hospitals, airports and seaports, expressway authorities and children's services.

• People who work for the state's public-private job creation arm, Enterprise Florida, including its board members, would be subject to the two-year post-employment "revolving door" restriction that applies to legislators, agency heads and high-level state employees. They could not quit the agency on Friday and show up on Monday to lobby their former employer.

• School districts could legally garnish the wages of an employee who has an unpaid fine as the result of an ethics violation.

• A local government's final budget must remain online for two years after it's adopted.

Another part of the ethics bill proved trickier.

For the past 40 years in Florida, a principle of the ethics laws has been this: If you serve on a city council and are a member of a professional firm, such as a lawyer or accountant, you can't represent clients before your own government, nor can the partners in your firm.

The idea is to minimize self-dealing and conflicts of interest, but it can be a problem in small-town Florida where lawmakers say it discourages qualified people from running for office.

Gaetz suggested that the business partners of elected officials should be able to lobby governments as long as the elected officials abstain from voting and couldn't get paid as a result of the governing body's decision. It included several other safeguards, too, but it didn't fly.

"I don't think recusal has worked very well in this Legislature," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who cited the Legislature as a place where lawyer-legislators have partners who push special interest legislation. He voiced fears of "a floodgate of conflicts."

Gaetz's original proposal also drew fire from the watchdog group Common Cause at a hearing last week, and the Commission on Ethics raised a red flag.

Executive director Virlindia Doss of the Commission on Ethics praised Gaetz for his efforts to prohibit professionals from creating sham corporations that would allow voting conflicts to continue.

"He's been extremely receptive to everything the commission has been interested in," Doss said.

Common Cause criticized Gaetz's bill last week, claiming it would perpetuate a voting-conflict loophole. On Monday, Common Cause's Ben Wilcox praised the new version.

"To Sen. Gaetz's credit, he has kept the ethics reform conversation going now in the Legislature for three years," Wilcox said. "He's pretty much single-handedly responsible for it."

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.