Financial disclosure should be priority
Florida's feeble financial disclosure laws need more muscle, as a recent report by an independent watchdog documents. Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz would bolster his and the Legislature's credibility if he fulfills his promise to address the issue. Consider some of the findings of Integrity Florida, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog: Eleven legislators worked for lobbying firms during the 2012 session, and 12 legislators disclosed a total of 33 potential voting conflicts in 2012.More than 4,200 current public officials and employees had failed to disclose 2012 financial interests as of July 26, and 66 current or former Florida officials and employees owe a total of $87,199 in fines for late filing of financial interests in past years. Such information is difficult to find because Florida does not put state officials' financial disclosure filings online, as 27 states do. As a result, Integrity Florida reports, "Looking up the outside financial interests of a state legislator can take hours. Typically the financial disclosure reports are filed on paper forms with the state Ethics Commission. The public can access the financial disclosure forms for a small fee through a public records request." Filing them online would give the public immediate access to this valuable information without costs. Integrity Florida cites the 2009 research of the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, which gave Florida a grade of D for financial disclosure laws and ranked it 26th of all states. It's instructive that despite its reputation for letting the good times roll, Louisiana ranked first in disclosure laws. That's because Gov. Bobby Jindal demanded tougher laws. As a conservative, he understood that strong ethics laws protect taxpayers from feather-nesting-cronyism and political deals that end up wasting tax dollars. Integrity Florida compared the disclosure forms of Jindal and Florida Gov. Rick Scott to highlight the states' different requirements. Louisiana, unlike Florida, requires disclosure of: detailed information on outside employment; income from government and gaming interests; all transactions exceeding $1,000; government staff campaign contributions to public officials who employ them; extensive details about the finances of spouses; and nonprofit board memberships. Implementing ethics reforms takes courage, and the legislative leadership has shown scant interest since former Senate President Tom Lee took on the task in the mid-2000s. Lee pushed through a ban on gifts to lawmakers and required lobbyists to report their clients and how much they were paid. This earned him the enduring antipathy of some high-powered lobbyists, who are now fighting his campaign to return to the Senate. But Scott and Gaetz should worry about what's best for the people of Florida, not politicians and lobbyists. They should follow Jindal's example and adopt laws that will give citizens a chance to see whether questionable financial arrangements are tainting government decisions.