Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz floats massive ethics proposal

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Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz signaled Tuesday that he wants to tighten the state’s ethics and elections laws, including cracking down on officeholders who take other public-sector jobs and possibly changing key parts of the political fund-raising system.

Also, Gaetz said he wants to toughen conflict-of-interest rules for lawmakers and provide easy online access to public officials’ financial-disclosure forms, saying it is now “like a treasure hunt” for citizens to find the information.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, offered a broad outline of the ideas to reporters, but details would have to be worked out and approved during the 2013 legislative session.

In one potentially controversial idea, Gaetz said he wants to rein in elected officials who also start getting paychecks from other government agencies. Gaetz said he would like to prevent elected officials from accepting other public-sector jobs if they don’t have the background or “prior competency” to qualify for the jobs.

Gaetz said, for example, the restriction would not apply to a teacher who wants to run for the Legislature. But it would be targeted at people who get elected to office and, for instance, wind up getting management positions at public agencies that might not otherwise hire them.

“This is going to take a great deal of work,” Gaetz said. “We’re going to have to look at what other states have done.”

Another potentially controversial idea would restrict or eliminate what are known as “committees of continuing existence,” which can accept large political donations. Some lawmakers, including Gaetz, have formed the committees in addition to having campaign accounts that are limited to accepting $500 contributions.

Gaetz said he is concerned about potential abuses in how contributions to the committees are spent. Such abuses could involve money going toward expenses that don’t directly have a political purpose. He floated the possibility of raising the $500 contribution limit to candidates, while restricting or eliminating the committees.

“I don’t think it (money going to a committee) provides as much transparency as a direct contribution does,” Gaetz said.

Gaetz also called for changing a rule that allows senators to avoid declaring conflicts of interest before voting on measures that could benefit them or family members. He said senators should declare conflicts before votes and possibly not vote.

Meanwhile, Gaetz’s proposal for making financial-disclosure information more readily available to citizens is similar to an idea that the nonpartisan group Integrity Florida has been pushing. The group says on its website that 27 states post financial-disclosure information online, but Florida does not.

“The public should have access to an online, searchable database of state officials’ financial disclosure information, potential voting conflicts and gifts received,” Integrity Florida said.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.