Florida’s legislative leaders are signaling a surprising readiness to start cleaning up state government, a desperately needed action that follows scandal upon embarrassing scandal in state government and the stubborn refusal of elected officials to heed warnings by ethics watchdogs pointing the finger of shame at Tallahassee.
It’s not clear what drove incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and some colleagues to make ethics legislation a priority, but there should be no doubt that the Capitol needs a top-to-bottom ethics scrub-down to rid it of the stench of corruption.
Maybe it was the long-running scandal involving former House Speaker Ray Sansom, who resigned under fire in 2009 after the discovery of stealth appropriations in the budget and a subsequent grand jury report that strongly criticized state leaders for an inept budget process.
Or maybe it was the oops-I-forgot ethics violation by former Sen. Mike Haridopolos, who had to formally apologize last year for filing incomplete disclosure forms over a five-year period because he neglected to mention a cushy $120,000 consulting job, among other things — and he was the Senate president at the time!
Or maybe it was the realization that the public was getting wise to the game. In November, voters in Central Florida thankfully spared the state further embarrassment, given that legislators were ready to name another loser as a legislative leader, when they rejected the reelection bid of Rep. Chris Dorworth of Lake Mary. Now a former lawmaker, Mr. Dorworth had been anointed a future speaker of the Florida House despite his well-publicized failure to make a mortgage payment on his $1.6 million house in three years and a lavish lifestyle supported by campaign funds.
Whatever the motivation, Florida lawmakers are certainly on the right track if they want to restore the reputation of a Legislature tarnished by a string of scandals. The draft legislation filed by the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, led by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, contains a number of useful provisions.
Some of these are so basic that it’s a wonder they’re not mandatory already — for example, a provision that requires lawmakers to abstain from voting on legislation that benefits them. Duh. This falls into the category of no-brainer.
Other provisions clearly don’t go far enough. The draft bill limits the kind of expenses that can be paid for by so-called Committees of Continuous Existence, whose sole purpose seems to be to allow lawmakers to evade campaign finance limitations. House Speaker Will Weatherford would rather do away with the CCEs altogether, and he’s right. They’re beyond fixing and should be terminated.
There’s also room to upgrade the state Ethics Commission, which needs a stronger bite.
We agree with the grand jury report of 2010, which found that the maximum $10,000 penalty the commission can levy should be increased to $100,000. And the commission should have the power to initiate investigations on its own instead of waiting for referrals.
All said, however, we’re not prepared to look a gift horse in the mouth. If Sen. Gaetz and Rep. Weatherford really want to overhaul ethics in Tallahassee, they should be ready to fight for it, because they’re likely to meet heavy resistance from lawmakers who like things just the way they are.
And if by some miracle the Legislature approves an upgrade, Gov. Rick Scott, who has never pushed for reform, should be prepared to sign the legislation.