House boosts early voting, Senate tightens ethics law

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMarch 6, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- In an attempt to restore voter trust after a tarnished election season, Florida lawmakers used the first day of the 60-day legislative session to vote on two bills, one that would reverse the state's controversial early-voting laws and another to mend holes in the state's ethics laws.

The elections revisions passed the House 118-1; the ethics bill passed the Senate unanimously.

"We all recognize that public confidence in government is at an all-time low," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, who shepherded the ethics bill through the Senate. "Part of it is what people read about people who get elected to office and then take that office and make it like it's their own office, for their use, rather than the people's use."

The measures were pushed by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

The House bill, HB7013, would reverse the changes that forced voters into long lines at the polls during the November 2012 election. The measure would restore minimum voting hours to eight from six, extend early voting to a minimum of 64 hours and a maximum

of 168 hours, and give elections officials the ability to use fairgrounds, civic centers, courthouses, stadiums and convention centers as polling places.

The Senate passed SB2, a wide-ranging revision to the state's ethics laws that forces legislators and other public officials to disclose conflicts of interest, report finances, and gives the state's ethics watchdog some teeth.

The bill requires legislators to disclose for the first time if a bill they vote on would in any way benefit them. It bans legislators from lobbying the governor's office and executive branch agencies for two years after they leave office. It prohibits legislators from taking a job with another public agency, and it closes a loophole that allows them to use political committees to pay for lavish meals, travel, entertainment and gifts.

"It's too bad we have to do a bill like this," Latvala told his colleagues, adding that it would not have been necessary if those in office just used a little common sense.

He called it the most "comprehensive ethics reform package since 1976," when voters passed the Sunshine Amendment opening records and meetings in Florida.

The measure also gives the state Ethics Commission new tools to crack down on scofflaws. The commission must create an online, searchable database for the public to review financial-disclosure forms of public officials, and it gives the commission new authority to garnish public wages or put liens on property when elected officials do not pay their fines.

If the Senate ethics bill were already in place, former House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, may not have gotten the job with Northwest State University that led to his resignation. Former Sen. JD Alexander, R-Frostproof, would have had to disclose more of his family's commercial interests involving legislative votes. And former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Orlando, and former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, wouldn't be lobbyists this year.

The House's priority bill not only restores many of the changes made by legislators in 2011 to the state's early-voting laws, it also imposes a 75-word limit on summaries of constitutional amendments in an attempt to shorten ballots.

Many of the same legislators who voted on the 2011 legislation which made the original changes to early-voting laws commended the bill as an improvement.

"It's a new day in the Florida House," proclaimed Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa. She said the chamber must next "go further and focus on elections that are fairer and far-reaching."

The House has proposed its own ethics bill, which focuses on revising campaign-finance laws, increasing the limit on individual campaign contributions from $500 to $10,000 and increasing the disclosure requirements. However, those measures were not voted on Tuesday.

Gaetz said the two chambers are working to find common ground between the positions of the House and the Senate, which would increase the contribution limit for some races, but not as high as $10,000.

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