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Ethics reform starts strong in Senate

TALLAHASSEE — The prospects for the first serious ethics reform in 36 years brightened Tuesday when lawmakers embraced an array of changes that would make it harder for them to exploit their positions for financial gain.

The changes, unveiled during a Senate ethics committee by its chair, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, include closing a "revolving door" that allows lawmakers to lobby state agencies after they are out of office; restricting lawmakers from using political committees for personal expenses; and prohibiting lawmakers from finding work at state colleges and universities after they are elected.

The committee of eight Republicans and five Democrats also sounded supportive of a slate of recommendations from the Florida Commission on Ethics, including docking pay for state workers who don't pay fines levied by the commission; putting liens on property of those who don't pay fines; posting financial disclosure information of public officials online; and giving law enforcement the ability to refer cases to the commission for investigation.

"These are historic times for Florida for ethics reform," said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida. "This proposal is comprehensive and most impressive."

The proposed bill, which should debut in the next week, is on a fast track because it's a chief priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. Latvala said Tuesday he understood how important ethics reform was to Gaetz.

"He showed me a front page of his hometown newspaper from the day after he was sworn in as president and the headline said, 'Gaetz promises ethics reform,'" Latvala said. "He assured me he didn't want to go home and break that promise."

Senators appear to have an ally in the other chamber, which might push ethics reform even further. Like Gaetz, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has called ethics and campaign finance reform a top priority. He said he wants to eliminate the political committees that lawmakers, such as former Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, used for personal expenses such as air travel, bar tabs and catered meals.

Latvala said he didn't want to go that far, preferring instead to fix problems with committees rather than eliminating them. There are details to work out.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said she was hesitant to approve limiting a lawmaker's ability to get hired by a college or a university — a recurring hiring pattern in recent years — because it unduly impaired job prospects.

But Latvala said he was surprised that committee members supported perhaps his most daring proposal: to prohibit former lawmakers from lobbying the executive branch or joining firms that lobby the Legislature for two years after leaving office.

It was seemingly aimed at former House Speaker Dean Cannon, who left office last year and is now a Tallahassee lobbyist. Cannon can lobby the executive branch, but must wait two years before he can lobby his former colleagues.

"I have a whole lot of anecdotal information that this is something we need to take a little bit of a stand on it to keep everybody on the up and up," Latvala said.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he'll back Latvala in his push to make it harder for lawmakers to return to lobby in Tallahassee.

"It's a distasteful exit strategy," Lee said. "It monetizes a title that, but for the public lending it to them, they wouldn't have."