A day after the Senate unanimously passed ethics reforms at the start of the 2013 legislative session, a House committee picked apart the bill, objecting that it went too far in some areas and weakened safeguards in another.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has named as his top priority ethics reforms aimed at restoring citizens’ trust in government. But a House ethics proposal has not yet received a single committee vote or even developed into a formal bill.
“We’re not going to rubber-stamp just anything in this committee,” House Ethics and Elections Chairman Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said after his committee struggled with several portions of the Senate proposal Wednesday afternoon.
The Senate plan (SB 2) would strengthen prohibitions against legislators immediately becoming lobbyists after leaving office, give the state Commission on Ethics more teeth and require that financial disclosure reports be posted online.
The proposal would also bar elected officials from taking second jobs or receiving promotions that were created especially for them, something several committee members balked at on Wednesday.
Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, called that provision “loosey-goosey” and said it could keep a schoolteacher who serves on a county commission from being promoted to principal because administrators would fear they are breaking the law.
“As a state rep that’s looking for a job and not a self-made millionaire…, I will tell you this gives me great pause,” Workman said. “It is a big part of my resume that I am a state representative. It’s not something I’m peddling…. But you need to be aware that four months out of the year I’m going to be gone.”
The dual-employment provision would have prohibited former House Speaker Ray Sansom from going to work for a Panhandle college as a vice-president for a six-figure salary on the day he was appointed speaker. He eventually resigned from the post.
“You have to ask yourself who are they trying to protect,” said Ben Wilcox, a lobbyist for the League of Women Voters of Florida, which supports the bill. “Are they trying to protect the public or the politicians? The issue is, are people given positions or jobs because of who they are. That’s happened in the past in Florida.”
And some members also balked at a “revolving door” provision that would bar legislators from lobbying either the legislative or executive branches, or going to work for a firm that lobbies, for two years after leaving office. Currently, lawmakers are restricted from lobbying only the legislative branch for two years.
Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said the measure’s language is too ambiguous and could get lawyers in trouble if they are asked to review a statute.
And Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said a provision that would give the ethics commission the ability to garnish the wages of elected officials who do not pay their fines does not go far enough. For wealthy officials “in the millionaire’s club,” Williams said, that “would be a slap on the hand.”
Some members balked at a provision that would require constitutional officers to take four hours of ethics training every year, saying that once every elected term should be adequate.
The Commission on Ethics is also asking for a change to the Senate proposal that would weaken current law by allowing elected officials to amend incomplete or erroneous financial disclosure reports after a formal complaint has been lodged, a provision the commission’s executive director Virlindia Doss said could lead to massive lawsuits. The bill would give elected officials 30 days to fix “immaterial, inconsequential or de minimis” errors or omissions. The bill defines those matters as meaning that the original filing provided enough information for the public to determine whether a conflict of interest exists. Public officials have neglected to include incomes from second jobs, bank accounts or vacation homes in the past.
The language needs to be tightened, argued Matt Carlucci, who serves on the commission. “We don’t want to give the defense too much wiggle room.”
Wilcox said he believes the House can improve the ethics package. “That’s almost like a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he said.
Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, defended the Senate’s plan.
“If they can show some rational basis for making changes in it, we’ll take a look at it. But I think what we sent down was an excellent bill and I hope they’ll take it and look at it very seriously,” Thrasher said.