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House revises its ethics bill, allows for revolving door lobbying of exec branch

The Florida House Subcommittee on Ethics unanimously agreed to make some revisions to its high profile ethics bill on Tuesday, tightening some rules and loosening others. The biggest change: exempting all legislators from the two-year ban on executive branch lobbyists except the House speaker and the Senate president. 

The decision to allow legislators who leave office to return the next year to lobby the governor and executive branch underscores the delicate dance legislators engage in. Many of them run for office to serve the public and others use the process as a ticket to lobbying.

A Herald/Times report found that as the state's budget has increasingly become dependent on steering contracts to private sector vendors, the size of the lobbying corps has exploded. There are now more people registered to lobby the governor, the Cabinet and their agencies — 4,925 — than there are registered to lobby the 160-member Legislature — 3,235.

The House bill adopts much of the Senate bill which passed the Senate on the first day of session, but makes some significant changes. 
For example, the Senate bill imposes a two-year ban on legislators lobbying or doing consulting of the executive branch, while the House bill imposes the limit only on the House speaker and Senate president. The House tightens the provision that bans lawmakers from voting on any bill that would result in their private gain or loss, it removes the ability of the ethics commission to put liens on the property of violators but leaves the provision that allow the commission to garnish wages. And the House bill gives the Ethics Commission more flexibilty to determine when to dismiss complaints than the Senate.

Phil Claypool, the former director of the Commission on Ethics, commended the committee on making "really significant improvements" to the Senate bill but suggested that some of the provisions will set ethics law backwards in Florida. 

He said the provision that allows elected officials a "free do-over" on their financial disclosure statements -- giving them 60 days after the filing deadline to make changes and 30 days after a complaint is filed -- significantly weakens current law. 

"You next campaign opponent can wait until after the primary election to file an accurate financial disclosure and there would be nothing the Ethics Commission can do about that,'' he said. 

He said the so-called revolving door provision which limits the ban on executive branch lobbying will be "perceived widely as a flaw in this bill."

"I believe these matters are simply mistakes,'' he said. "They can be fixed." 

Matt Carlucci, chairman of the Ethics Commission, echoed Claypool's concerns. He urged them to remove the 30-day do-over on financial disclosures.  

“I think that takes incentive away to make sure, when you get this disclosure which is a sworn statement that it is done right the first time,'' he said. "I know very well that you can do something wrong and step on a little political land mine and that’s no fun…but most of the problems that fall in that caretory are pretty easily resolved.”

Brad Ashwell of Common Cause of Florida also commended the committee but said the bill could be improved. 

Reps. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and Mike Clelland, D-Orlando, voted for the bill but urged it's sponsor, Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, to keep working on it. They both said they wanted to see the ban on executive branch lobbying returned and the financial disclosure rules tightened. 

Tallahassee resident and one-time mayoral candidate Steve Stewart urged the legislature to make the bill as strong as it can and strengthen the ability of the ethics commission to enforce the laws.

"I appreciate your effort here but after this you will own part of the Ethics Commission,'' he warned. "You don’t own it now." 

Boyd responded that his goal was to develop a bill that will be and ethics model for the country. "We " will do what we can before this gets to the next stop to consider your concerns,'' he said.