The state’s legislative leaders are putting ethics reform front and center this legislative session by backing a number of proposals that will make lawmakers and government officials more accountable.
House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz pushed ethics reform last year, and lawmakers responded with new lobbying rules meant to keep elected officials from cashing in on their public service.
This year, Weatherford and Gaetz want to toughen the punishment for public officials who fail to file financial disclosure forms, require quasi-governmental agencies such as Citizens Property Insurance and Enterprise Florida be held to higher ethical standards, and crack down on lawmakers who don’t live in the districts they represent.
Ethics goes to the heart of the public’s trust in government, and these efforts to reform and expand the law deserve support.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and chair of the state Ethics and Elections Committee, has filed bills addressing a number of the needed reforms. Under his bill, lawmakers could be removed from office for failing to file mandatory financial disclosure forms, which are intended to give the public a clear window into any financial conflicts a lawmaker may have.
If passed, lobbyists who try to influence special taxing districts, such as the regional water districts that collect millions in tax revenues, would be required to register, and the taxing district would be required to post that information on its website.
In a separate bill aimed at lawmakers who live outside their districts, county utility bills and the addresses listed on federal income tax returns could be among the documents used to establish a lawmaker’s primary residency. The state constitution requires lawmakers be a registered voter and resident of the district they represent, but Latvala says he’s aware of a number of lawmakers who may be violating the requirement. The law would clarify the process for determining whether lawmakers are following the law.
Other measures in the bill would require yearly ethics training for local elected officials, and set up a system for garnishing the wages of elected officials who are fined for breaking the rules but don’t pay up.
Over the years, the state’s Ethics Commission has bordered on irrelevancy. Rules restrict when and what it can investigate, and combined with the delays in rendering findings and the mild penalties, the commission hasn’t done nearly enough to discourage bad behavior by our elected officials.
These new rules are building on the momentum started last year. Taken as a whole, they will hold public officials to the ethical standards expected of them, and give the state needed enforcement tools.
Weatherford, Gaetz and Latvala should be applauded for making ethics a priority.