House Speaker Will Weatherford, Senate President Dan Gaetz and Gov. Rick Scott made ethics reform a top priority as this year’s legislative session opened in March. When that session closed Friday, a range of ethics and campaign finance reform measures were signed into law.
The changes drew an enthusiastic response from a newly formed government watchdog group.
“Gov. Scott delivered on his commitment to ethics and integrity in government to strengthen the public trust,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida. “Passing stronger ethics laws is a good way to improve Florida’s reputation and our state’s ability to attract jobs. The lead ethics enforcement agency will finally gain new tools to address public corruption in all aspects of government. Floridians will have easier access to financial disclosure reports from our officials so we can hold them accountable for potential conflicts of interest. It is encouraging that our state leaders have passed such comprehensive improvements to Florida’s ethics laws.”
Among the reforms is expanding the number of agencies through which citizens can file ethics complaints. Complaints can go through U.S. Attorneys, State Attorneys, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Governor’s Office. Those agencies can then refer complaints to the Florida Commission on Ethics, which has been given increased power to extract fines from trangressors. The law allows the commission to garnish wages for up to 20 years if a fined officials does not pay, an increasingly common practice that had turned ethics conviction into a statewide joke.
The measure also tightens up a ban on legislators lobbying their former colleagues for two years, strengthens voting conflict standards, requires ethics training for newly elected officials, and expands restrictions on vendor gifts to state officials. In addition, the state will put officials’ financial disclosure forms online in a searchable database.
On campaign finance reform, the new law increases individual giving limits from $500 to $1,000 for legislative and local candidates and $3,000 for statewide candidates, which Krassner says will free up candidates from having to depend of special interest committees and party funding. We’re not so sure raising contribution limits will achieve that goal. In fact, the higher limits will likely reduce the need for candidates to do retail-level fund-raising and make it easier for deep-pocketed donors to crowd out others voices in the campaign process. We do like the abolition of so-called committees of continuous existence, which Integrity Florida called “slush funds.”
One of the most secretive political practices in Florida is the flood of last-minute money flowing into and out of campaigns, mostly for negative advertising. The new law requires 24-hour disclosure of contributions and expenditures for state-level campaigns during the waning days before elections. While we’d like to see that requirement expanded to local and district-level races, we understand the reporting burden would be significant in many places and races. Hoping the creation of an enhanced statewide campaign finance database, which is required in the law, will simplify reporting to make that possible in the future.
The above are long-overdue changes that we trust will not be the last.