With its part-time schedule, low pay and term limits, the Florida Legislature seems to be a perfect mold to create citizen-lawmakers. These altruistic public servants would rise from their communities full of personal and business experience to impart their real-life sensibilities on the body politic of Tallahassee.
In reality, the Legislature — and perhaps to a further extent a bureaucracy empowered by term limits — has become a revolving door through which ambitious legislators pass on their way to lobbying riches and influence peddling.
One-party domination over the past decade has muted any criticism of such practices, so common that barely an eye batted when the outgoing president of the state Senate Mike Haridopolos and speaker of the state House Dean Cannon immediately joined lobbying firms upon their departures from public service.
That the ethics-challenged Haridopolos — who called five years of under reporting his income on financial disclosure forms and hiding names of his consulting firm clients “clerical errors” — would leap at a chance to reap rewards from his government connections is no surprise. But the pleasant surprise of this legislative session has been the aggressiveness of new Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford in pushing through an ethics reform package that would try to close the legislator-turned-lobbyist revolving door.
The final package of restrictions on post-Legislature employment restrictions are still being hashed out, but the likely outcome will be a ban on direct lobbying of legislative or executive officials by former lawmakers for two years. We would have preferred stronger provisions to prevent term-limited or retired legislators from joining law firms or lobbying firms for a so-called “cooling off” period during which they can’t lobby former colleagues. The appearance of elected officials trading their allegiance from voters to special interests needs to be addressed. Maybe next year.
There is no shortage of landing spots for ex-legislators. A 2012 report by the Florida Center for investigative Reporting found that more than 2,500 companies, unions and local government spent $127 million in 2011 to influence legislators. A 2011 Orlando Sentinel analysis of lobbyist filings found that they spent more than $55 million in the first three months of 2011. Those figures don’t even include election-related spending through PACs, corporate executives and employees aimed at currying favor with legislators. In turn, powerful legislative leaders funnel money through leadership funds and political action committees to like-minded candidates and legislators to ensure compliance on key votes.
There a reason why decades of state tax-cutting haven’t produced a noticeable reduction of tax burden for the average voter. Those breaks go to the people who paid for them.
Speaking of paying, one glaring glitch in the ethic reform bills working their way through the House and Senate is the continued toothlessness of the state Commission on Ethics, which was forced to write off hundreds of thousands of dollars in old fines against legislators who simply refused to pay them. A House panel this week rejected an amendment to its version of ethics reform that would have strengthened the Ethic Commission’s ability to collect fines by filing liens against a violator’s property, a measure that is included in the Senate version of the legislation.
The old cliché tells us power corrupts, but in Tallahassee the system is set up to make corruption acceptable. That system is getting scrutiny this year.
It’s a start.