Finally, Florida poised for landmark ethics reforms

March 1, 2013 

There's a refreshing wind blowing through Tallahassee, generated by principled people determined to change the culture of corruption that has come to dominate Florida politics. From 2000 to 2010, Florida led the nation in the number of public corruption convictions with 781.

Both Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weaterford set ethics reform as a top priority far in advance of Tuesday's opening of the 2013 regular session. Restoration of the public trust in elected and appointed officials is the commendable goal.

The Senate Ethics Reform Package, consisting of SB 2 and SB 4, already breezed though two committees on unanimous votes and now heads to the chamber's floor, poised for final passage -- possibly next week. The companion pieces in the House still await committee action.

The sweeping measures contain landmark reforms -- "the most far-reaching in 36 years," Gaetz remarked during a meeting this week at the Herald. The Niceville Republican stated that he and Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, intended that this legislation "set the tone for our time as presiding officers."

Indeed, this sea change in ethics will alter Florida's political landscape. As Gaetz said, officials all too often use their public positions for private gain.

Last summer, while House veteran and Bradenton attorney Bill Galvano was only a Senate candidate vying for election in November, Gaetz enlisted his legislative expertise in drafting these bills. Galvano "stepped right into a leadership role," the Senate president also stated in praise of Manatee County's new senator.

The reform package expands the scope and enforceability of ethics rules while increasing transparency.

SB 2 prohibits public officers from accepting additional employment with the state or any of its political subdivisions under specified conditions; requires financial disclosure statements be placed online for public viewing instead of being filed away; directs state officers to abstain from voting on certain matters that benefit them directly, and allows officials to place assets into a blind trust to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

The bill also requires ethics training for constitutional officers and places restrictions on lobbying after leaving office. The latter provision comes in the wake of several prominent lawmakers immediately taking on lobbying roles upon the completion of their legislative terms last year. Under this restriction, lawmakers would have to wait two years before lobbying the executive or legislative branches of government -- by then losing their influence to leverage favors for clients, Gaetz said.

The measure also authorizes Florida's Commission on Ethics to collect an unpaid fine in a greatly expanded time frame -- from the current four-year limitation to 20 years. The commission can also garnish public wages and place liens on private property in order to collect those fines, vital tools in order to crack down on recalcitrant officials. Florida law requires some 37,000 state, county and municipal officials to file financial disclosure forms but roughly 1 to 2 percent disregard the rule and some ignore the fine.

SB 4 allows the commission to initiate investigations, eliminating the need for a formal complaint of a breach of the public trust. That complaint requirement had been a major barrier to rooting out ethical lapses.

In years past, legislators have paid lip service to ethics reform as bills routinely died in committees or otherwise failed. This year looks like the game-changer.

We applaud Gaetz and Weatherford for their strong leadership on this landmark legislation. And to Galvano for his contributions.

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