Politics & Government

Legislature's new leaders back tough ethics reform

TALLAHASSEE — The new leaders of the Florida Legislature called Tuesday for sweeping and stronger ethics laws, including a crackdown on lawmakers who collect a second public paycheck while holding office.

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, pledged to make ethics reform a priority in the legislative session next spring in hopes of improving the Legislature's reputation among Floridians.

"I think we ought to raise the standard of ethical conduct in the Legislature and among public officials in the state generally," Gaetz said, endorsing changes sought by the Commission on Ethics as a starting point.

As Gaetz's call for higher ethical standards for elected officials hit the political blogs Tuesday, Weatherford tweeted: "Don and I are in agreement here. It's the right thing to do!"

For the moment it is talk, but this would be the first time since Reubin Askew was governor in the 1970s that high-ranking state officials have taken ethics reform so seriously. Attempts to strengthen state ethics laws have consistently failed to go anywhere, even as powerful lawmakers have been dragged into one ethical swamp after another.

Outgoing Senate President Mike Haridopolos formally apologized in February for filing incomplete disclosure forms over a five-year period. Former House Speaker Ray Sansom resigned in 2009 amid an investigation of his efforts to steer millions to a hometown college that later offered him a job.

In a roundtable discussion with Capitol reporters, Gaetz listed ethics reform as his second-highest goal, right behind tweaking the education system so that it creates better jobs.

For starters, Gaetz said, public officials' financial disclosure statements should be online, where people can find them, and he said lawmakers should not be allowed to vote on matters in which they declare a conflict of interest, as current rules allow.

"What kind of rule is that?" Gaetz asked.

He said lawmakers should be barred from using campaign money to subsidize living expenses such as travel and meals. Some lawmakers control committees of continuous existence that solicit unlimited donations from special interests that can legally be used for virtually any political expenditure.

The Times/Herald reported that Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, has raised $1 million for a fund that has paid for air travel, hotels, bar tabs, catered meals, office supplies and campaign T-shirts.

"I think it's wrong to collect money and then live out of it," Gaetz said. "The law currently allows fairly wide discretion."

Gaetz's boldest proposal is a call for restrictions on the long-standing practice of lawmakers finding work after they are elected, often at colleges or other agencies that depend on the Legislature for funding.

"It's what we in Okaloosa County call a walking-around job," Gaetz said. "I think that ought to be prohibited. I believe that from the time you are a public official until the time you leave, you shouldn't be collecting a second public paycheck."

The only exception, Gaetz said, should be for classroom teachers.

Florida has a citizen Legislature in which members serve part-time for about $30,000 a year and can hold outside jobs. The Times/Herald has reported on 18 legislators who held outside jobs at state colleges or universities in 2008, including then-Speaker Marco Rubio, now a U.S. senator.

Gaetz has a net worth of $24 million and is one of the Legislature's wealthiest members.

A bill that would have prohibited lawmakers from also holding jobs in the higher education system, sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, was killed on a 6-6 vote in a Senate committee last session.

Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, the incoming leader of House Democrats, said any restrictions on outside employment should be done carefully so they don't discourage people from seeking office.

"Do we want representation only from the wealthy and retired, or do we find a way to incentivize public service?" Thurston said.

Gaetz also said conflict-of-interest rules for legislators are too lax, especially in the Senate.

Under current legislative rules adopted by lawmakers themselves, members may vote on an issue in which they have a conflict, but they must declare the conflict publicly. Senators have until 15 days after casting the vote to declare the conflict.

"If you or your family benefits directly from a piece of legislation, you should declare the conflict, you shouldn't vote, and you shouldn't try to influence the vote," Gaetz said.

For several years, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, among others, have filed bills to do that, but they have never gone anywhere.

"Glad he's bringing something forward. Hope it is meaningful," said Dockery, who's term-limited and will leave the Legislature next month.

Weatherford, who like Gaetz will take office on Nov. 20, issued a statement that said: "It's good news for Florida that House and Senate leadership are in agreement that there is a need for meaningful campaign finance and ethics reform. This issue will be a Senate and House priority."

Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said he senses a newfound commitment to ethics reform in the Capitol.

"The stars are aligned for Floridians, after a 36-year drought, to finally see ethics reform taken seriously in our Capitol," Krassner said.