Voters could get say on government ethics
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida Constitution Revision Commission on Monday advanced a sweeping ethics package, which includes a proposed six-year lobbying ban for former state lawmakers, agency heads and local government officials.
The 28-5 vote on the measure (Proposal 39) marked the beginning of the process of sorting through three-dozen potential changes to the state Constitution. The commission, which meets every 20 years, has the unique power to place issues directly on the November 2018 ballot.
In addition to the ethics measure, the 37-member commission advanced seven other proposals to the panel’s Style and Drafting Committee, which has the authority to revise the measures and group proposals on the ballot. Once approved by the committee, proposals will return to the full commission for a final vote, which will require support from at least 22 members. The commission faces a May 10 deadline for its final decisions.
The ethics proposal, sponsored by Commissioner Don Gaetz, a former Senate president from Niceville, would prohibit state lawmakers, the governor and Cabinet members from lobbying any state agency or the Legislature for six years after they leave office. The current ban is two years. The six-year ban would also be extended to state agency heads.
The measure would also impose a six-year lobbying ban on many local government officials, including county commissioners, city commissioners and school members. They would be prohibited from lobbying their former governmental bodies.
State elected officials as well as local government officials would be prohibited from lobbying other governmental agencies while in office, including the federal government.
Judges would be banned from lobbying the Legislature, state agencies and the judicial branch for six years after leaving office, although they would be allowed to represent clients in court proceedings.
The proposal also would establish a stronger ethics standard for public officials, prohibiting them from using their offices “to obtain a disproportionate benefit” for themselves, their families or their businesses. It would be up to the Florida Commission on Ethics to define “disproportionate benefit.”
If ultimately adopted by voters, Gaetz said the measure would represent “the strongest ethics standards that any state has ever adopted with respect to its public officials.”
He said part of his inspiration came from former Gov. Reubin Askew, who said he turned to constitutional changes for ethics reforms because proposals were blocked in the Legislature.
“That’s not going to happen in the Florida Legislature,” Gaetz said about the ethics changes. “Gov. Askew was right, this belongs in the Constitution.”
Commissioner Rich Newsome of Orlando said the ethics proposal would be popular with voters and “would send a thunderclap” across the state.
“Floridians want this. They want to be clean. We are supposed to be the Sunshine State,” Newsome said. “Let’s clean this up.”
Most of the debate came on a provision that Commissioner Tom Lee, another former Senate president from Thonotosassa, successfully added to Gaetz’s measure. It would ban governmental bodies from hiring lobbyists to influence the annual appropriations process in Tallahassee.
Lee, a former Senate appropriations chairman, said he “boiled over” during the recent legislative session when he learned Hillsborough County had hired a new lobbyist as budget negotiations began because the county had funding issues tied up in a Senate budget subcommittee and the lobbyist had helped raise $1 million for the chairman.
“I hate to be on the Senate floor airing the dirty laundry (about) the way this process works,” Lee said. “But it’s the truth. And we have a chance to fix it here.”
Commissioner Arthenia Joyner of Tampa objected to Lee’s amendment, saying it would hurt communities represented by the minority party in the Legislature or smaller communities.
“When you’re the underdog you get the crumbs if anything,” said Joyner, a former state senator. “I don’t think this is going to cure it. If it does, somebody is going to be left in the dust with nothing.”
Lee’s amendment passed in a 17-15 vote.
Other measures advanced Monday by the commission included:
- A proposal (Proposal 49) that would establish survivor benefits for law- enforcement officers and other first responders, including active military members stationed in Florida, if they are killed “while in the line of duty.”
- A measure (Proposal 41) that would raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 70 to 75.
- A proposal (Proposal 11) that would close the so-called “write-in loophole,” which allows primary elections to be limited to a single party if there are write-in candidates.
- A measure (Proposal 13) that would prohibit counties from abolishing elected offices for sheriff, property appraiser, elections supervisor and other constitutional offices if they become charter counties. It would also force charter counties that have changed those offices to return to an elected system.
The commission rejected a measure (Proposal 47) that would require judges to be members of a Bar association for at least 10 years, including five in Florida, before taking office. Meanwhile, Commissioner Jose Felix Diaz of Miami withdrew a proposal (Proposal 50) that would have revised residency standards when candidates qualify to run for the Legislature.
Proposals that are placed on the ballot by the commission will require support from at least 60 percent of the voters to be enacted.
News Service of Florida