When Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran convinced the House to pass ethics rules in 2016 that require lobbyist for local governments and other tax-funded entities to disclose their contracts, it was a victory for transparency. Finally, the public would see how much public money their local governments were spending to lobby the Legislature. A web page provided a one-stop resource for tracking such expenditures.
Sadly, that victory was short-lived because the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee failed to ensure that information collected from lobbyists was posted or that lobbyists actually filed the required disclosures.
The web page went a full year without a single update, even as some lobbyists continued to send in information. But many lobbyists didn’t, and the committee took no steps to check for violations, or even remind lobbyists of the requirements.
“We're not in the business of trying to seek out and find violations,” said Rep. Larry Metz, chairman of the ethics committee. “If we're told someone is not complying, we're going to take that under advisement and act accordingly.”
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With Metz refusing to serve as a watchdog, it fell to others. Hundreds of lobbyist disclosure forms were uploaded to the web page only after reporters for the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times inquired about the status of the database. But even though the 2018 legislative session ended in March, details of 170 contracts for that session still aren’t available online.
If Corcoran had gotten his way in 2016, localities wouldn’t have been able to spend money on lobbyists at all. “It's a disgrace that taxpayer dollars are used to hire lobbyists when we elect people to represent them,” he said when the rule passed. “The state doesn't do it, and neither should the locals.”
Corcoran has a point. Localities should be able to make their case to legislators without spending millions of taxpayer dollars on outside lobbyists. That’s part of the job local officials are elected to do, after all.
But localities are often going up against powerful private interests with high-powered, high-paid lobbyists. Corcoran couldn’t convince the legislature that it was fair to force local governments to unilaterally disarm, so he settled for this rule requiring greater transparency. It was a good compromise that should have made it easy for the public to at least see how much money their local governments were spending lobbying another government.
The rule is worthless, though, if the ethics committee doesn’t do the work of following through — which includes monitoring compliance by lobbyists working for local governments. It should also be strengthened to include subcontractors and consultants, not just the primary firm contracting with a locality.
Metz only offered up a non-excuse, non-explanation for the failure: “The ball was dropped somewhere along the line.”
Well, yeah. But who dropped it? More importantly, who is going to pick the ball back up and ensure that the promise of this rule is fulfilled?
Metz seems to think the committee is on top of things. “I'm optimistic about the system that we've started with this term,” Metz said. “The foundation is in place for a very robust disclosure system to be accessed by the public in real-time.”
It’s not really clear, though, why the public should share that confidence — given the committee’s recent performance.