Without confidence in the integrity of elected officials, there can be no confidence in the public policies they embrace. The Senate is poised to send a powerful message today as it takes up ethics reform shortly after the opening of the legislative session. The legislation is a thoughtful, comprehensive approach to reform in a state where political corruption and conflicts of interests are all too common.
The bill, SB 2, ranges from improving the mechanics of applying ethics rules to increasing expectations that public officials will put the public's interests first rather than their own. Elected officials, for example, would be banned from obtaining new jobs with government agencies in many instances and would have better guidelines for adhering to the state's conflict-of-interest law. The bill would hold the state's procurement employees to closer account and close a loophole in the state's gift ban law that enabled some legislators to use so-called third-party committees to raise unlimited funds from special interests and spend the money bolstering their own lifestyle.
The provisions, put together by Senate Ethics and Election Committee chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, could have significant impact on public life in Florida. But ultimately they will only have meaning if the details are right. Banning gift purchases from so-called Committees of Continued Existence, for example, will mean nothing if lawmakers allow other political committees that discretion, as is being contemplated in other legislation.
Starting in 2016, the bill would expand the law that bans former legislators from lobbying the Legislature within two years of leaving office to also prohibit them from acting as a consultant to lobbying firms or lobbying state agencies during the same period. That won't end special interests' stranglehold on Tallahassee. But it should ease it by slowing the revolving door that allows former legislators, just months after leaving office, to command top dollar from those same special interests as lobbyists and consultants. Latvala had initially proposed the ban start in 2014, but compromised after fellow senators' objections — a sign of just how significant this reform would be in Tallahassee.
The proposal also would finally give Florida's ethics watchdog some much-needed teeth. The ethics commission would have 20 years — instead of just four — to collect fines from local and state officials that violate ethics laws. And the commission could place liens on public officials' property to collect those fines. Now many officials just wait the clock out and never pay up. The bill also would allow another avenue to initiate an ethics investigation. Now investigations are triggered only by a signed citizen complaint. This legislation would allow the governor, law enforcement or prosecutors to refer cases to the commission for investigation.
Senate President Don Gaetz committed to ethics reform after watching a series of scandals unfold in his own Panhandle district. House Speaker Will Weatherford has signaled support. But the legislative session lasts 60 days, and that's plenty of time to water down the reforms and for lawmakers to get cold feet. Today is an excellent first step, but Gaetz and Weatherford will have to stay on top of these reforms until the legislation is approved and sent to the governor for his signature.