TALLAHASSEE -- The new leaders of the Florida Legislature called Tuesday for sweeping and stronger ethics laws, including a crackdown on lawmakers who collect a second public paycheck while holding office.
Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker-Designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, pledge to make ethics reform a priority in the legislative session next spring in hopes of improving the Legislature’s reputation among Floridians.
“I think we ought to raise the standard of ethical conduct in the Legislature and among public officials in the state generally,” Gaetz said, endorsing changes sought by the Commission on Ethics as a starting point.
As Gaetz’s call for higher ethical standards for elected officials hit the political blogs Tuesday, Weatherford tweeted: “Don and I are in agreement here. It’s the right thing to do!”
For the moment, it is talk, but this would be the first time since Reubin Askew was governor in the 1970s that high-ranking state officials have taken ethics reform so seriously. Attempts to strengthen state ethics laws have consistently failed to go anywhere, even as powerful lawmakers have been dragged into one ethical swamp after another.
Outgoing Senate President Mike Haridopolos formally apologized in February for filing incomplete disclosure forms over a five-year period. Former House Speaker Ray Sansom resigned in 2009 amid an investigation of his efforts to steer millions to a hometown college that later offered him a job.
In a roundtable discussion with Capitol reporters, Gaetz listed ethics reform as his second-highest goal, right behind tweaking the education system so that it creates better jobs.
For starters, Gaetz said, public officials’ financial disclosure statements should be online, where people can find them, and he said lawmakers should not be allowed to vote on matters in which they declare a conflict of interest, as current rules allow.
“What kind of rule is that?” Gaetz asked.
He said lawmakers should be barred from using campaign money to subsidize living expenses such as travel and meals. Some lawmakers control committees of continuous existence (CCEs) that solicit unlimited donations from special interests that can legally be used for virtually any political expenditure.
The Times/Herald reported that Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, has raised $1 million for a fund that has paid for air travel, hotels, bar tabs, catered meals, office supplies and campaign T-shirts.
“I think it’s wrong to collect money and then live out of it,” Gaetz said. “The law currently allows fairly wide discretion.”
Gaetz’s boldest proposal is a call for restrictions on the long-standing practice of lawmakers finding work after they are elected, often at colleges or other agencies that depend on the Legislature for funding.
“It’s what we in Okaloosa County call a walking-around job,” Gaetz said. “I think that ought to be prohibited. I believe that from the time you are a public official until the time you leave, you shouldn’t be collecting a second public paycheck.”
The only exception, Gaetz said, should be for classroom teachers.
Florida has a citizen Legislature in which members serve part-time for about $30,000 a year and can hold outside jobs. The Times/Herald has reported on 18 legislators who held outside jobs at state colleges or universities in 2008, including then-Speaker Marco Rubio, now a U.S. senator.