The Florida Senate unanimously passed an imperfect ethics bills. The House could improve it. Unfortunately, the House also could gut it, which several representative seem eager to do.
Senate Bill 2 would keep legislators from being able to morph instantly into lobbyists, as last year’s House speaker and Senate president have done. SB 2 keeps the existing two-year ban on lobbying former colleagues in the Legislature and would make ex-legislators wait two years before they could lobby the executive branch — the governor and department heads.
The Senate also adopted an amendment that applies the lobbying restrictions to current lawmakers, who would have been exempt under the original bill. In the House, as The Post’s Dara Kam reported, Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said the Senate’s lobbying ban is vague and that former legislators could get into trouble if they even agreed to read a draft bill and offer advice. That’s a stretch. Anyway, both chambers are full of lawyers who could sharpen any vague parts.
Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, objected to a “loosey-goosey” provision that would prevent legislators from parlaying their political jobs into private jobs created for them. He said most legislators are part-timers with other jobs. He worried that employers wary about the new law would withhold jobs or promotions. For example, a school district might overreact to the new law and keep a teacher/legislators from being promoted to principal.
But that would be no problem so long as the school district could document that the teacher deserved the promotion. The Senate bill correctly intends to stop abuses like former House Speaker Ray Sansom snagging a six-figure state college job created for him — and advertised to nobody else. While in the House, Mr. Sansom had padded the college’s budget.
Dan Krassner, executive director of the watchdog group Integrity Florida, told The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board that the Senate bill has weaknesses. One would let legislators post misleading or inaccurate financial disclosure forms online and correct them without penalty if caught. The House should fix that. Another loophole would let politicians put assets into an alleged blind trust without revealing to the public what’s in the trust. Mr. Krassner also wants more authority for the Florida Commission on Ethics to initiate investigations.
Even with those shortcomings, the Senate bill — a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville — would be a big improvement. It would give the Ethics Commission more power to impose and collect fines — a thought that makes some House members wince — and for the first time would let prosecutors and law enforcement agencies refer complaints to the commission for investigation. The commission now only can take complaints from citizens.
For the moment, objections from the House are from whiny members who like things the way they are — even if current loose rules have created actual and apparent corruption. On an ethics scale of 1-to-10, Mr. Krassner said, the Senate bill would bring Florida up to a 4 or 5. Not great, but good compared to the 1 or 2 Florida would score today. Imperfect would be a big move up from chronically unethical.
Jac Wilder VerSteeg
for The Post Editorial Board