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Senate files sweeping ethics reform package, deemed 'most significant' in decades

Senate leaders filed a sweeping ethics reform package late Friday that attempts to close dozens of loopholes in state ethics laws from addressing voting conflicts and shutting down slush funds to halting the revolving door between legislators and lobbying.

"This proposal will be the most significant ethics reform in 36 years -- since the Sunshine Amendment,'' predicted Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee which filed the draft legislation. 

The committee first discussed most of the provisions of the proposed committee bills, SPB 7006 and SPB 7008, earlier this week in a workshop and has scheduled the first hearing for Tuesday, Jan. 22. 

Many of the provisions take aim at the ethical questions that have arisen in recent months, including the decision by former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, to open a lobbying firm a block from the Capitol to start lobbying the executive branch.

“It's a revolving door,'' Latvala said. "When you have a presiding officer of one house or the other and one day you're supervising agency budgets as speaker or president and the next day you're a lobbyist, I don't think that's good public policy."

The proposal also attempts to end the practice of elected officials and candidates for public office creating Committees of Continuing Existence and then using them as slush funds for personal meals, entertainment, travel and gifts. The practice came under the microscope during the Miami Dade State attorney's investigation of former Congressman David Rivera but, the attorneys concluded, it was not illegal.

"It would greatly aid prosecutors in these types of inquiries and provide clearer guidance to candidates if the law was revised," the attorneys wrote in wrapping up the 18-month probe. "We have been confronted with the fact that an elected official over a period of many years may essentially live off a combination of (political) contributions… while avoiding penal sanction."

CCEs could not be used to pay for meals and entertainment for other legislators, Latvala said. "We’re still allowing for legitimate expenses including travel to raise money and have a fundraiser or deliver a check. But you can’t have night after night parties in Tallahassee paid for by your CCE."

The committee bill also adopts several of the suggestions by the state Commission on Ethics, which has been forced to write off hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid fines levied against officials who do not file disclosure forms. The Senate bill tightens the requirement and allows for wages to be garnished officials fail to pay the fines.

The bill is on a fast track and will come up for a vote the first week of session, as it has been deemed a top priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, Latvala said.

Many of the provisions, such as the requirement that legislators abstain from voting on legislation that benefits them, have been the subject of legislation offered by former Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, for years, but was never given a hearing. 

"It's kind of incredible that's not already law,'' Latvala said. "But when the president makes something a priority, it happens." 

Among the provisions in the proposed Senate bill:

* Dual employment --bans anyone elected to the Legislature from accepting a new job with the state or its political subdivisions, such as school districts, community colleges, universities, water districts (exempts teachers.) Legislators also may not be given promotions, raises as a result of his or her election.

* Lobbying ban -- Expands the two-year ban on legislators, members of the executive branch and their staff from lobbying the legislature by expanding it to include the executive branch; the ban also includes work for lobbying firms doing strategy and public relations work. "There's no difference doing that stuff and being a lobbyist,'' Latvala said.

* Voting conflicts -- Requires legislators to abstain from voting on issues that benefit them or family members.

* Slush funds -- Bans the use of political commitees and Committees of Continuous Existence from being used as personal slush funds to pay for dinners, travel and gifts. Limits those expenditures to campaign-related activities.

* Disclosure -- For the first time in state history, requires that financial disclosure forms be posted online.

* Penalties -- Allows for the garnishment of wages for any elected officials who fail to pay fines for violating ethics or elections laws. Gives elected officials who fail to file their financial disclosure paperwork  60 days to complete it or pay a fine.

* Oversight -- Strengthens the ability of the state Ethics Commission to pursue investigations by allowing the governor's office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, state attorneys or federal prosecutors to refer cases for them to undertake.

* Training -- Requires mandatory four-hour ethics training for public officials.