A Senate committee unanimously approved an ambitious ethics bill Tuesday and set it up to be the first bill voted out of the Florida Senate but only after it exempted current lawmakers from the "revolving door" limits on lobbying the governor and his agencies.
The Senate Rules Committee unanimously approved SB 2, the top priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, which imposes tougher ethics rules on legislators and local officials. The vote came after the committee also approved, without discussion, an amendment to delay a proposal in the bill that would have required legislators who retire to wait two years before they enter into lucrative executive branch lobbying contracts.
The amendment by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, postpones the two-year ban on legislators becoming executive branch lobbyists until after 2014. The change gives legislators who retire after this two-year term the opportunity to immediately join the ranks of the revolving door class.
A Herald/Times report found that there are more lobbyists registered to lobby the governor and his agencies than there are to lobby the legislature as a cottage industry has sprung up around the massive outsourcing of contracts in the state budget. Former House Speaker Dean Cannon is among the most recent who have gone to work as an executive branch lobbyist, a practice Latvala called a "revolving door" that his bill was designed to stop.
Current law require legislators to wait two years after they retire before they can return to lobby the legislature but there are no restrictions on lobbying the executive branch.
"As opposed to changing the rules in the middle of the game we are changing the rules in the beginning of a term of office,'' Latvala said.
The wide-ranging bill also imposes new rules on which legislators, state and local officials can take jobs with universities or other public agencies once they have been elected. It strictly limits how candidates can use their Committees of Continuous Existence to pay for travel, dinners and entertainment and it prohibits legislators from voting on bills that would result in special benefit for them or their families.
The bill does not include a proposal to modify the current ban on legislators accepting gifts from organizations that lobby the legislature. House Speaker Will Weatherford and Gaetz said they were open to modifying the proposal to offer more flexibility for groups that want to invite lawmakers to speak at their dinners and conferences without running afoul of the current ban.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who was Senate president when the gift ban took effect, said he may file a separate bill to make the modification.
SB 2 also increases the powers of the Commission on Ethics by giving them added authority to initiatve investigations and new power to impose liens or garnish wages to collect fines from violators. The commission would also be required to post all financial disclosure forms on line using a searchable database.
At the local level, constitutional officers such as sheriffs and elections supervisors would have to undergo four hours of ethics training each year. Commission on Ethics by allowing the authority to initiate investigations and impose liens or garnish wages of wrongdoers who don’t pay fines.
The bill is likely to be the first bill voted out of the Senate when lawmakers convene in regular session on March 5, said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, Senate Rules chairman.