Optimism for ethics, campaign reforms in Florida

January 17, 2013 

In a refreshing turnaround, Florida's Legislature -- long known for pay-to-play politics with special interests -- appears to be serious about campaign and ethics reforms. Both Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford are taking strong steps toward tightening the state's notoriously lax laws.

After decades of failed efforts at reform, this could be the game-changing year.

The two Republican leaders have called for the elimination of the so-called "committees of continuous existence." With many controlled by legislators, CCEs raise money that is then transferred to other campaigns to leverage power and influence without public disclosure of donors.

The committees amount to political slush funds that also cover the costs of wining-and-dining outside the mission of a CCE -- political fund-raising. A ban on the organizations faces a steep uphill battle, especially in the Senate where the Ethics and Elections Committee balked at the idea this week.

Weatherford remains steadfast in favor of elimination over in the House. In fact, on Wednesday, the Wesley Chapel legislator endorsed a rather radical idea proposed by a state ethics watchdog organization.

Integrity Florida, a nonprofit and independent group, urged legislation that would eliminate all contribution limits; require 24-hour disclosure for all contributions and expenditures by candidates and parties; eliminate CCEs; and remove spending restrictions and increase disclosure for political parties.

The trade-off here is far greater transparency in politics in exchange for the free flow of money. Current law limits donations to candidates to $500 in the primary and $500 in the general election, but still those restrictions have been swamped by the spending from super PACs and corporate contributions, recognized as free speech under a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

This should ignite a spirited debate. One key issue will be if lawmakers are willing to expose all their donors and the amounts quickly in order to collect unlimited sums.

Gaetz, of Niceville, set down minimum reforms in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, also this week: greater transparency with contributions and expenditures reported online within 24 hours, and tighter restrictions so the money is only spent on campaigns and political purposes and not for personal expenses and "subsidizing filet mignon lifestyles."

Such spending loopholes must be closed. For a state that boasts about its Government-in-the-Sunshine laws, transparency is also a must so the electorate becomes informed about the money trail.

This week, the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee is pushing ahead with a bill that covers several vital reforms to curb past abuses, including the spending abuses by CCEs.

While the Senate's provisions are a step forward, the Integrity Florida proposal is a giant leap.

Another provision of the Senate bill addresses financial disclosure. Every year hundreds of elected officials from all levels of government across the state ignore the law that requires a form be submitted detailing income and assets, but the Florida Ethics Commission is basically powerless to collect the automatic fine of up to $1,500.

The Senate measure allows liens on real property and garnishment of wages should officials fail to pay fines. Plus, the statute of limitations would be extended from four years to 20. This should crack down on this unethical practice and empower the commission, which has written off about $1 million in fines over the past 10 years.

Two provisions prevent lawmakers from exploiting their influential positions for financial rewards.

One bans legislators from accepting employment at state colleges and universities after being elected into office.

This was inspired by the scandal involving disgrace former House Speaker Ray Sansom, who announced his six-figure salary from a Panhandle state college immediately upon ascending to the speakership who later resigned under fire. This had the appearance of a legislator cashing in on connections.

The second prohibits lawmakers from lobbying the executive and legislative branches for two years after leaving office -- or from even working for a legal firm that lobbies the Legislature.

This comes about in the wake of term-out House Speaker Dean Cannon's swift formation of a lobbying firm in November after leaving office.

The Senate bill also forbids legislators from voting on measures that contain personal financial interests. Current law is too weak, only requiring disclosure of a conflict of interest.

With Gaetz and Weatherford expressing deep commitments to reforming Florida's political landscape, the state should see a few rays of sunshine soon.

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