During Florida’s legislative session, many bills become law without much scrutiny, while the bigger, controversial issues get more attention. So a little 15-page bill dealing with a mundane issue like citizen support organizations (CSOs) wasn’t really a blip on anyone’s radar, but it should have been.
To the casual observer, and most of the Legislature, it must have appeared as a shining example of good government, transparency, accountability or any other feel-good bureaucratic buzzword you’d like to insert here.
But it isn’t good government; in fact, it’s more government, more intrusiveness and more meddling into the actions of private entities. That’s right — private entities.
Most of these CSOs are not-for-profit organizations that already have stringent reporting and auditing requirements as well as extensive coordination with government agencies.
Who are these CSOs and what do they do? They are citizens who organize to volunteer and raise funds for our state parks, libraries, Florida National Guard, veterans, elderly and the blind.
This CSO-hostile bill popped up with no notice, ironic since its goal is purported to be transparency. The bill requires detailed reporting requirements, adoption of a code of ethics and sharing of tax documents of the private organization.
It also requires the review and repeal of the CSO every five years unless action is taken by the Legislature.
Yes, that’s right; the lawmaking body of the state of Florida wants to repeal private entities that receive no tax dollars unless they decide the entity should be re-enacted. This is less government?
When asked why this bill was needed, advocates for CSOs were told it was part of the Senate president’s ethics reform. The sponsors of the bill admitted they were not aware of any particular problems and they had a difficult time naming a CSO that received any tax dollars.
My favorite line in the staff analysis of the bill reads: “Those organizations are authorized to adopt additional or more stringent standards of conduct and disclosure requirements than are contained in the state’s Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees.”
Well, that makes perfect sense. As part of government ethics reform, let’s require private entities to adopt a stricter code of ethics than elected officials. Brilliant!
I’d like to believe that legislators might have just been duped by the honorable sounding, accountability-dripping language of the bill and were blind to the disincentive it would be to citizen volunteers and donors. But in reality, they ignored the pleas of one of the most knowledgeable sources about CSOs, The Friends of Florida State Parks.
The Friends tried to educate legislators on the positive impact of the state’s 84 park and trail CSOs that generate more that $4 million in revenue through fundraising events and donations. They also provided 1.4 million volunteer hours in one year alone, making up 38 percent of the state park service’s total manpower.
Many of the CSOs, also known as Friends Groups, have provided funding for large capital projects such as visitor centers and boardwalks that require long-term fundraising efforts. During the economic downturn, they provided critical funding for building repairs, mowers, trams and road paving, and other necessities sitting on the waiting lists of a park system that is chronically underfunded.
After a devastating hurricane season, the CSOs were instrumental in cleaning up the parks and getting them reopened much quicker to the public.
The Florida State Parks system has been nationally recognized three times, more than any other state park system, with the prestigious Gold Medal Parks award. This is due in large part to the strength of our CSOs.
The Legislature should thank them and ask how they could duplicate their efforts. The statewide Friends of Florida State Parks was established in 1993 and has met all the reporting requirements every year, an excellent track record. They don’t shy away from accountability or transparency.
Their major objection to Senate Bill 1194 is the repeal provision that would require each CSO to face a “sunset review” every five years, putting long-term capital improvements and fund-raising campaigns in jeopardy.
It’s disappointing that the Legislature passed this misguided bill with a near unanimous vote despite being made aware of its negative consequences. The state could face a painful financial hit to the state park system and to the other agencies that benefit from CSOs if the law leads to less citizen enthusiasm and activity.
Why would volunteers want to continue to give their time and resources with all this uncertainty?
Gov. Rick Scott would be wise to veto the bill, apologize to all those selfless and talented volunteers and thank the CSOs for the tens of millions of dollars they have saved the taxpayers and the tremendous contribution they have made to our quality of life.
If it ain’t broke, don’t meddle.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at [email protected]