New wrinkle develops in ethics bill for special districts

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A new wrinkle developed in the effort to reform lobbying in special districts statewide, as Florida lawmakers struggle to distinguish between large hospital authorities and smaller districts with limited budgets.

Senate ethics bill SB 846, sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, requires a special district lobbying reporting system that is similar to the one used to track Tallahassee advocates.

But Latvala — chair of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee — recognizes the problem some districts would face with full reporting and says that some smaller regions could be exempted.   

Latvala says he is primarily interested in hospital, expressway and port authorities, as well as water-management districts; the current wording of the bill would cover all 136 special districts that collect property taxes.

“We’re going to have to figure out how to thread that needle and get the ones that need to be gotten without the two-staff-member mosquito-control districts,” Latvala told Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida  after the meeting.

As the measure moves to the Senate Community Affairs Committee, an amendment will be added that could lessen reporting requirements for lobbyists, such as removing the requirements to keep track of lobbyist incomes — something necessary for Tallahassee lobbyists.

But some committee members warned Latvala not to go overboard in providing relief for smaller districts.

“I don’t want to be burdensome any more than necessary,” said Sen. Tom Lee, “but make sure that you draw that line, if you could, in a pretty conservative place.”

The bill would also make various other changes to Florida ethics laws, Larrabee writes. Local officials would have to take ethics training similar to lawmakers and “quasi-governmental” agencies, like Citizens Property and Enterprise Florida, would fall under tighter regulations. The Florida Ethics Commission would have greater capacity to remove public officials who fail to file reports intentionally.

“This would get at those officials that just basically are thumbing their nose at Florida’s financial disclosure law,” Latvala told the News Service.

Also passed with little comment was SB 192, which would roll back Florida’s lobbyist gift ban, permitting lawmakers to accept courtesy food and drinks while attending certain events, and give them the ability to use public facilities for meetings, regardless of the relationships lobbyists have at the Capitol with the facility owners.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.