Wed January 23, 2013
Bill Would Give Ethics Commission More Power With Expansive Overhaul
A Senate committee unanimously approved a bill Tuesday that supporters called the most expansive overhaul in decades of the rules elected officials must follow, even as the measure obscured what could be a battle with the House over campaign finance laws.
The measure (SPB 7006), which would limit the jobs elected officials could take with state agencies, give the Ethics Commission more power to collect fines and strengthen conflict-of-interest laws, will likely be ready for action by the full Senate by the first week of the legislative session, said Jack Latvala, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, which approved the proposal Tuesday.
"A unanimous vote's a very good, strong indication that we're committed to ethics reform this year," said Latvala, R-Clearwater.
In fact, the most controversial parts of the meeting came when lawmakers approved a provision, opposed by the Florida League of Cities, that would bar local officials from taking jobs with state agencies and when Attorney General Pam Bondi showed up to rebut quotes she had seen on Twitter that she mistakenly took as attacks on her office.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, praised Latvala after the vote for crafting the bill.
"The Senate began the approval process for the most sweeping ethics reform in more than 30 years this afternoon," Gaetz said. "This bill stands as a bright line warning to those who would use public office for private gain and as a tribute to those who treat public office as an obligation for service and sacrifice."
The measure would also strengthen rules against the "revolving door" by barring elected officials from taking jobs with any firm that primarily lobbies or from representing anyone before executive agencies. In comments that seemed to take a veiled shot at former House Speaker Dean Cannon, Latvala said he was committed to the revolving door provision.
"I just think it's a farce the way the system works now," he said. "You have a guy who's a presiding officer one year, doing agency budgets and controlling life or death of agencies and what they do and their programs, and the next year he's lobbying them? You know, one day after he leaves as speaker or president and he's going to lobby them?"
But the bill deals with what could be one of the fiercest fights over campaign finance this year only at the periphery, barring public officials from using their outside fundraising groups to provide gifts that aren't connected to the organizations' work.
Lawmakers said, for instance, that it would cut back on the habits of some legislators who use "committees of continuous existence," or CCEs, to take colleagues out to dinner during the session.
Latvala said the committee would more extensively address CCEs in another bill, but he gave no specifics.
"We're going to do something significant with CCEs; I think you can bet on that," he said.
But Latvala also signaled a break with House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has proposed doing away with CCEs in return for an increase in the size of contributions lawmakers can accept for their official campaign accounts.
"That is an old, archaic law that should be addressed," Weatherford said last year. "And by doing that, it will alleviate and emasculate these third-party groups that have been so prevalent in Florida for years and years."
Latvala sounded unconvinced.
"I raised $600,000 without breaking a sweat in my Senate race this year," he said. "What would I possibly need three or four or five times that much for a Senate race? I wouldn't need it. I mean, why?"
Brandon Larrabee reports for the News Service of Florida.