State Politics

New code of conduct targets Florida Capitol’s ‘good-old-boy’ culture

Florida’s incoming House speaker, Rep. Richard Corcoran, issued on Thursday a new code of conduct for lawmakers and lobbyists to attack what he calls the “good-old-boy culture.”

The rules include stricter lobbyist disclosure requirements, limits on communication between lawmakers and lobbyists, and a ban on lawmakers flying on lobbyists’ aircraft, even if they pay their way.

“The Florida House will set the standard for others to emulate,” said Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican, who will become speaker Nov. 22 when new rules will be voted on by the full 120-member House, which includes 46 rookie lawmakers.

Corcoran, 46, has an impatient and sometimes confrontational approach. He voiced contempt for the status quo when he was designated speaker last year.

“The enemy is us,” he told his colleagues, most of whom like Corcoran are Republicans, including the GOP’s state party chairman, Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill.

The Herald/Times reported on several of the rules changes in a story published online Monday.

Several rules directly attack what Corcoran calls a system of conflicts of interest, secrecy in budgeting and too-cozy relationships between legislators and lobbyists.

Among the proposed House changes:

▪  Every lawmaker-sponsored budget item must also be filed as a stand-alone piece of legislation by the first day of the session, which begins in March.

▪  Lobbyists must file a notice of appearance on every bill, amendment and budget item they seek to influence. They are currently required by law only to register for each paid client.

▪  Lobbyists can’t send emails or text messages to House members in committee meetings or floor sessions, a practice Corcoran says would trigger “justifiable outrage” if the public knew more about it.

▪  House members must disclose new employment from a public entity that gets state money, such as a state college, and they can’t have business or financial relationships with lobbyists or their clients, and they can’t lobby local governments while holding office.

▪  House members who leave office can’t return as lobbyists for six years. The current law is two years and a change requires a voter-approved amendment to the state Constitution.

▪  House members can no longer fly on private planes owned by lobbyists or their clients, even if they pay the commercial rate as current state law allows.

Free travel is banned by a decade-old gift law and ethics laws, but the pay-to-fly practice has been approved by the Commission on Ethics if lawmakers pay the lowest commercial fare on the same route.

Some lawmakers fly on lobbyists’ aircraft to and from home or to events such as the Super Bowl, Kentucky Derby and college football championship.

“That practice ends,” Corcoran said.

Lobbyists, whose livelihood depends on good relations with the powerful speaker, reacted philosophically to Corcoran’s plans.

“What he’s really trying to do is professionalize the operation of his own members,” lobbyist David Ramba said. “If he wants to bash us, that’s fine. We’ll adapt.”

Ramba, a pilot, owns airplanes and has flown a number of lawmakers (usually state senators) so often that the arrangement is known in the Capitol as “Air Ramba.”

He said lawmakers comply with payment requirements and very little lobbying occurs.

“If I’m on that plane, I’m flying it,” Ramba said.

He said: “My planes are there for my clients. They’re not there for legislators. This rule is an inconvenience for them, not us.”

Ramba said the requirement to note an appearance on each and every issue struck him as a “little bit of overkill,” and he said a lot of the texting between lobbyists and lawmakers is innocuous, such as setting up a future meeting (those texts are public records under Florida law).

Corcoran, whose brother Mike is a prominent lobbyist, will be speaker for two years, and is widely seen as a potential 2018 candidate for attorney general or governor. A populist crusade against Tallahassee insiders may appeal to voters.

Corcoran’s staff briefed members of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists Thursday.

“I don’t see the impending gloom and doom of people redressing their government,” FAPL Chairman David Mica said. “I see cultural changes that are going to take some getting used to.”

The new rules will apply to all 120 House members and to every paid advocate who lobbies the House.

Rep. Janet Cruz, the incoming Democratic Leader of the Florida House, said Monday that she supports Corcoran’s new rules.

“He’s basically saying legislators need to do a better job of legislating, and lobbyists need to do a better job of lobbying,” Cruz told the Herald/Times. “An ethical approach is very important to Richard Corcoran, and I respect that.”

Ben Wilcox of the watchdog group Common Cause said Corcoran’s status as an insider gives his plan credibility.

“I think that his inside experience gives him a unique perspective to propose reforms that he knows are needed,” he said.

Wilcox said a ban on lobbyist-provided plane trips is long overdue. He said the cut-rate charter flights are a loophole in the 2006 law that banned legislators from accepting gifts from lobbyists.

Following Tuesday’s election, the Florida House includes 79 Republicans and 41 Democrats, with one Miami-Dade seat still subject to a recount.

More than a third of the members, 46 out of 120, make up the freshman class of 24 Republicans and 22 Democrats.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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