Gov. Rick Scott pretty much got it right Thursday. The governor signed into law ethics legislation that should make it easier for the state to enforce penalties against public officials who cross the line. He also enacted a campaign-finance law that increases campaign contributions.
He took a dim view, however, of lawmakers’ attempt at alimony reform and vetoed it. Though an override is unlikely, the veto shouldn’t be the end of the story.
Applaud the governor for moving ahead with ethics reforms. The law sharpens the dull teeth of the state’s Commission on Ethics that, until now, has existed pretty much in name only. Now the agency can investigate complaints referred by law-enforcement agencies and the governor. It also can collect unpaid fines from officials with ethical violations. The commission has been able to impose fines, but not force anyone to pay up. As a result, nobody did.
The new law makes the commission less of a joke, more of an enforcer. It also bans former legislators from lobbying any state agency for two years after they leave office. Usually, term-limited legislators — or those who’ve lost their shot at reelection — hang out their lobbying shingles so quickly their leather seats in the House or Senate chamber haven’t yet cooled. The new provision puts a little space between former legislators hitting up the colleagues left behind for special favors on behalf of special interests that count on laws to work for them, not for the public.
In certain cases, legislators will be prohibited from taking second jobs on public payrolls, which could help tamp down on those no-show positions. And officials will be able to put their assets in blind trusts, which some critics say will allow them to hide wealth.
Another new law enacted this week will impose more frequent reporting deadlines on candidates for political office and raises maximum contribution limits. The current limit of $500 is a holdover from 1991. It will increase to $3,000 for statewide candidates and to $1,000 for all other candidates. Yes, that seems like an awful lot of cash — and influence — that monied interests can wield. In truth, however, the two decades’ old $500 limit hasn’t kept up with the cost of waging a political campaign — with its obligatory print and TV ads, mailers, staffers and the like. Unfortunately, those costs have exploded.
The bill also requires 24-hour disclosure of contributions and expenditures in the closing days of statewide campaigns and more frequent year-round reporting requirements for both candidates and committees. The legislation eliminates Committees of Continuous Existence, or CCEs, which could collect unlimited campaign contributions, but were banned from spending the money directly on campaigns. So CCEs turned into lawmakers’ slush funds for entertainment and travel. No more. Still, what lawmakers took with one hand, they rewarded themselves with the other, granting themselves the ability to create new political committees that can accept unlimited contributions. Ugh.
As for hard-fought legislation that would have ended permanent alimony and presumed that divorcing parents would share custody of their children, it was a no-go for Gov. Scott. He vetoed the bill, concerned that it contained a retroactive provision that could reopen thousands of divorce cases and upend many families’ financial stability. Good point. Still, permanent alimony can hurt families’ ability to move on. Lawmakers should give this one another try — to get it right.