Politics & Government

Incoming Florida House speaker bans ‘texting while legislating’

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, talks with Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, March 9, 2016, during debate on the Florida House floor.
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, talks with Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, March 9, 2016, during debate on the Florida House floor. Tampa Bay Times

When Florida’s 120 newly elected members of the state House of Representatives go to Tallahassee later this month, they will be asked to put down their cell phones. The incoming House speaker wants to an impose a ban on texting while legislating.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, says the new rule banning lobbyists from texting legislators while in committee or in the House chamber is needed to raise ethical standards and regain public confidence in the legislative process.

“We want to clean up and create fine lines on standards of ethical behavior for members and we want to clean up and mitigate the overarching influence of special interests on the process,’’ Corcoran told the Herald/Times.

The texting ban is just one of several changes to House rules to be unveiled Thursday as part of Corcoran’s sweeping attempt at “cleaning up our own House” and restoring civility to the political process. Other new House rules include imposing penalties on lobbyists for sexual harassment and a rule to delay the campaigns for choosing new House speakers until after legislators serve together at least one session.

The practice of texting legislators during committee meetings or floor debate is used routinely by lobbyists who rely on a friendly lawmaker to ask a question, or raise a point that could influence debate or a vote. In turn, lawmakers often text lobbyists offering details on a vote or asking a question.

“Those are the things that interfere with the civility and the purity of the process,” Corcoran said. Lobbyists caught violating the ban will lose their privileges to lobby the rest of the session, he said.

“The lobbyist is risking his livelihood if by chance he sends a text and somebody makes a public records request for it,” he said.

As for the impact on legislators, Corcoran says: “We will continue to stress that knowledge is power and when you don’t do your homework, you are giving power to people who don’t deserve it.”

Corcoran and other newly elected lawmakers will be sworn in during a brief session on Nov. 22. He said he has reserved the first week of December for training of House members. It will include a series of TED-style talks, dubbed “Tallahassee Talks” and members will not only hear how to apply the new rules, but also hear from guest speakers and subject-matter experts on issues such as how to maintain civility when dealing with conflict and sexual harassment training.

“Civility has gone downhill,” said Corcoran, a former legislative aide and legal adviser to three former speakers. “What happens when you have a loss of civility is you have a loss of members working together in a spirit of cooperation. The losers are the people, because the resulting policies that come out of an environment like that are never as good as an environment where people can be true to their principles.”

Corcoran did not elaborate on why there was a need for new sexual harassment rules to apply to the lobbying corps except to say: “If you want to represent in our chamber, you are subject to sanction if you do not behave appropriately.”

Other rules changes to be formally unveiled Thursday include:

▪  Requiring candidates for House speaker to wait until June 30 following their first session before they are eligible to start gathering pledges from supporters. The rule is an attempt to halt the race for speaker that has now begun so far in advance that freshmen are voting on leaders before they have had a chance to watch them lead.

▪  Close the revolving door between the Legislature and the lobbying corps by passing a constitutional amendment that imposes a six-year ban on any state elected official from lobbying the legislative or executive branch. The House currently has only a two-year ban on former legislators lobbying.

▪  Require lobbyists to adhere to new sexual harassment standards.

▪  Require lobbyists to disclose which bills, which amendments and which appropriations they are trying to influence.

▪  Prohibit legislators from taking a new job while in office from any company or special interest that receives any funding from the state, directly or indirectly.

▪  Prohibit local governments from being able to hire lobbyists.

Rep. Janet Cruz, the incoming Democratic Leader of the Florida House, has been negotiating the rule changes with Corcoran.

“He’s basically saying legislators need to do a better job of legislating, and lobbyists need to do a better job of lobbying,” she said.

Cruz said she initially didn’t agree with the idea of banning lobbyists from texting legislators when Corcoran proposed it. “I thought it was rolling back the clock in the age of technology, but, as we discussed it, I understood it.

“He’s been bothered by legislators’ reading off of their phones when asking a question, knowing when it’s a lobbyist who sent them,” she said. “He’s basically saying: ‘Do your job. Study the issues and if someone wants to lobby you, they should do it before the meeting.’ ”

But while Cruz suggests the idea is a “shot across the bow” at the powerful lobbying corps, she also worries about the ripple effect it could have on member esprit de corps.

“As we sit together on the floor, will one member lean over to the other member and police him. Will people use it to create harm against others? I don’t know.”

Corcoran foreshadowed several of the proposals in his “Blueprint Florida” distributed to members of his class elected for the first time in 2010. In his designation speech before the Republican caucus last year he declared: “The enemy is not the special interests; the enemy is not the press; the enemy is not any of that stuff. The enemy has always been and will always be us!”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas