Ethics Changes In Florida Constitution Will Be On November 6 Ballot

Mar 20, 2018

Don Gaetz (R) presides over the Constitution Revision Commission hearing in Pensacola.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

Expanding the lobbying ban for ex-government officials is among the proposals in a sweeping ethics package, which has been advanced by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission.

Proposal 39 is among 37 possible changes to the Florida Constitution through which the CRC is sifting. A co-sponsor is former state Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville, who says if passed by voters in November, it would be the strongest state ethics rule in the nation.

“Five years ago, a public integrity watchdog group labeled Florida the most corrupt state in the Union,” Gaetz told the CRC. “I’m not sure that’s fair – to Louisiana; or Alabama or Illinois, where reunions of former governors have to be held during visiting hours.”

P39 would ban the governor, state lawmakers, and the Cabinet from lobbying state agencies and Legislature for six years after leaving office. In the past five years, the Legislature has enacted seven major ethics laws that strengthen personal conduct standards in public office.

“If you read the reports of the last two statewide grand juries; the findings of the Florida Public Corruption Commission, or even recent media reports you know that when it comes to ethics in government, Florida still has some things to be embarrassed about,” said Gaetz. “And plenty that we can do better.”

That six-year ban would replace the current two-year ban, and would also be extended to state agency heads, and to grassroots office holders who have ad valorem, or property taxing, authority. It would prohibit them from being paid lobbyists while holding public office.

“Proposal 39 draws a bright line,” Gaetz said. “You can’t serve in an elected office voting on policies and appropriations that affect or involve other levels of government, at the same time that you’re being paid to appear before those other governments as a lobbyist for private interests.”

Judges would also be banned from lobbying the Legislature, state agencies and the judicial branch for six years after leaving office. However, they would be allowed to represent clients in court proceedings. The proposal also bans “disproportionate benefits” for officeholders, their families and their businesses.

“We want farmers in the Legislature to vote on agriculture bills; we want doctors and hospital executives in the Legislature to use their subject area expertise to shape health care policy,” said Gaetz. “The proposal directs the Commission on Ethics to define ‘disproportionate benefit,’ and provides that penalties would be established in law.”

Speakers line up to offer comments during the Constitution Revision Commission meeting in Pensacola.
Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media

Much of the debate came on an amendment that Commissioner Tom Lee, another former Senate president, successfully added on a 17-15 vote. It would ban governmental bodies from hiring lobbyists to influence the annual appropriations process in Tallahassee.

This amendment changes the effective date on the lobbying prohibition to December 31, 2020, with no retroactivity, and moves the date by which the Commission on Ethics needs to do its work, to October 1, 2019.

Action by the Constitutional Revision Commission, says member Don Gaetz, is the best path to a stronger ethical standard in Florida government.

“That’s not going to happen in the Florida Legislature; not because we don’t have great people, but because special interests who find it to be in their interest to maintain a lower ethical standard,” said Gaetz.

Other proposals gaining approval Monday include one which would close the so-called “write-in loophole,” which allows primary elections to be limited to a single party if there are write-in candidates.

The CRC faces a May 10 deadline for its final decisions. At least 22 members of the commission must approve placing amendments before voters. Proposals ending up on the November 6 ballot will require support from at least 60 percent of the voters to be enacted.