Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Legislative Leadership Vow Ethics Reforms; Bill Has Bipartisan Support, OK of 1 Panel, but 'Some Work Ahead'

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Legislative Leadership Vow Ethics Reforms; Bill Has Bipartisan Support, OK of 1 Panel, but 'Some Work Ahead'

Article excerpt

Byline: Matt Dixon

TALLAHASSEE | After rounds of failed legislation, lawmakers are poised this year to pass what they are calling Florida's most significant ethics overhaul in decades.

Strengthening state ethics laws is a top priority for legislative leaders, and Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville has this year's 52-page legislation on a path to be voted out of his chamber by early March.

For him and House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, it's a legacy issue.

"We said if we could leave any indelible mark on this place, it would be to try to raise the standard of ethics," Gaetz said late last week.

Although the current bill has received bipartisan praise and one unanimous committee vote already, not everything has gone as planned.

It is opposed by at least one powerful special-interest group, and promised reforms to fundraising committees fueled by unlimited campaign cash and abused by some candidates could prove hollow.

"Money is going to find a way to move around," said Tim Baker, a Republican strategist and attorney. "If they want to use it to party, they are going to party."

The reform push has also, apparently, brought former speaker Dean Cannon into the conversation. After serving two years as speaker, the Winter Park Republican was term-limited and started a lobbying firm.

That situation is the focus of a provision that would not allow lawmakers to lobby state agencies for two years after leaving office. Retired lawmakers currently are prohibited from lobbying the Legislature for two years.

"When you're a presiding officer and you preside over budgets for state agencies, then start going lobbying those state agencies, what's the difference in that and coming back and lobbying your colleagues in the Senate?" said Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg.

When asked specifically if the provision was aimed at Cannon, Latvala repeatedly said "if the shoe fits, wear it," but did not mention Cannon by name.

Many of the same lawmakers on the ethics committees have not been kind to recent reform packages.

Lawmakers swatted aside several proposals filed by former Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, that would have limited lawmakers' ability to sway legislation they would benefit from.

This year's bill does include a provision not allowing lawmakers to vote on a bill that would result in them seeing a "special private gain or loss."

The push for strengthened ethics laws in Florida is not unwarranted. A 2012 report by Integrity Florida found that the state has had 781 public corruption-related convictions since 2001, tops in the nation.

"We have a good bill this year," said John Thrasher, the St. Augustine Republican who is a member of the Senate committee. "We have some work ahead of us, but it's a great start."

Though the legislation passed out of its first committee stop on a bipartisan, 13-0 vote, it did gain an opponent. …

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