Judging by the recent comments emanating from the state’s top leaders, the coming legislative session will include a heavy dose of ethics reform. The push by a new advocacy group called Integrity Florida has elicited commitments to follow through on campaign promises by Gov. Rick Scott and address ethical lapses that have dogged the Republican leadership in the past few years.
“We are encouraged by the commitment from our top state leaders to deliver the ethics reform results Floridians are expecting in the upcoming session,” Integrity Florida officials Dan Krassner and Ben Wilcox wrote in a statement released this week.
Scott, incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford and incoming Senate President Dan Gaetz have publicly embraces recommendations made by the state Commission on Ethics in recent published reports.
“I think we ought to raise the standard of ethical conduct in the Legislature and among public officials in the state generally,” Gaetz told the Tampa Bay Times in a Wednesday story.
“It’s good news for Florida that House and Senate leadership are in agreement that there is a need for meaningful campaign finance and ethics reform,” Weatherford said in a statement released to the Associated Press for its Tuesday story on ethical lapses that have stained the Legislature.
Scott’s newest appointee to the Ethics Commission outlined a number of ethics reform proposals in a Tuesday op-ed piece in the Florida Times-Union, including closing loopholes in conflict of interest rules, strengthening the enforcement of fine collection and protecting whistleblowers who file ethics charges against public officials.
Integrity Florida, a non-partisan organization launched earlier this year, has trained its eye on high-powered entities such as Enterprise Florida and under-the-radar issues such as late filers of financial disclosure forms by public officials. It issued a list of reforms that would address self-dealing, lack of transparency and accountability at the state’s economic development arm, criticizing Enterprise Florida’s disturbingly low success rate compared to the millions spent on incentives. It undertook an exhaustive review of disclosure records and discovered that more than 4,000 public officials had failed to file the legally required forms this year. In part due to Integrity Florida’s spotlight, the ethics commission launched an compliance effort that whittled the figure down to just over 200.
One reason officials flout the requirement is the commission’s toothless enforcement powers. The fine for late filing is $25 a day up to $1,500, but a loophole in the law sets the statute of limitations at four years, meaning a scofflaw can just ride out the fine until it can no longer be collected.
Violations were seldom publicized, so there will little risk a public officials would suffer any bad publicity or recriminations.
Some proposed reforms may risk overreaching. A Senate committee last year rightly blocked a bill that would have prohibited legislators from working for government entities, such as universities. The bill was a reaction to disgraced former House Speaker Ray Sansom, who got a six-figure job at a Panhandle community college on the day he was sworn in as speaker. But eliminating a whole range of possible jobs for would-be legislators would further distort the already limited diversity of elected officials.
We’re not naive. Anyone who resists the wave of applause for reform will be conspicuous, so it’s not surprising everyone is singing from the same hymn book.
The details of reform will be cast in committee rooms over the coming months and their impacts may not be felts for years. In the meantime, we appreciate the role Integrity Florida is playing to keep the light shining in the Sunshine State.