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Lobbying ethics bill stumbles in Senate Rules

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A lengthy debate over a lobbying ethics reform bill ended with with former Senate President Don Gaetz moving to TP his own bill.

The proposal — Gaetz’s SB 1372 — would tighten many restrictions on lobbying in Florida. Most notably, it would hold Gov. Rick Scott‘s brainchild — Enterprise Florida Inc., housed within another Scott innovation in the Department of Economic Opportunity — to the same standards that other state governmental apparatuses are held to.

Specifically it would require those seeking to influence the public-private jobs creation effort to register as executive branch lobbyists and would require the same two-year “cooling-off period” for those employed at EF before they could go into the influence industry and advocate for outsiders themselves.

While most committee members and public testifiers were fine with that aspect, a further component gave pause.

Gaetz said the amendment would allow agency members to sit on panels that include local elected and appointed offices, regardless of whether those bodies take up interests represented by co-principals or partners of those officeholders — so long as they recuse themselves. It was simply intended to increase the eligible crop of suitable participants in public affairs by people who don’t currently get involved out of  fear running afoul of the Commission on Ethics, he said.

That relaxing of ethical boundaries did not sit well with some, though.

Ben Wilcox of public interest group Common Cause, had supported the bill until the amendment’s introduction. He testified against the amendment, saying it violated a “bright line” in Florida ethics law and will “open up more opportunities for litigation.”

“This amendment will benefit somebody, but it will not benefit the public,”  Wilcox said pointedly.

Another former Senate president, Sen. Tom Lee, sided with Wilcox.

“I don’t think recusal has worked very well in this legislature and I’m not sure that I’m comfortable allowing people to simply being allowed to use recusal as a shield that will allow them to pimp for business with their firm,” Lee said.

“As someone with experience with these kinds of conflicts, I’m troubled about possibly opening a floodgates of conflict where the Ethics Commission is saying they might never be able to connect the dots.”

That amendment carried the day despite concerns over possible conflicts.

So did another amendment introduced by Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, which would apply the same provisions to the constitutional offices outlined in Gaetz’s bill to special districts such as hospital and airport boards. Gaetz considered the amendment unfriendly.

The amendment, which also allows entities that receive some public funding — such as Tampa International Airport and University of South Florida in Joyner’s district — to use privately raised money to provide bonuses and severance packages for employee recruitment and retention, was a bridge too far for Gaetz. After its adoption on a 8-4 vote, Gaetz moved that the bill be “temporarily passed” as the old committee joke goes.

The bill may be reconsidered in the panel’s next, and likely final, meeting on Monday. Its House companion bill, HB 1063 by Rep. Larry Metz is also postured in its final committee of reference in State Affairs

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at [email protected]

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