The Republican-controlled Florida Senate unanimously passed a landmark ethics reform package on Tuesday, the first day of the legislative session, setting the stage for what could be the first major changes to the state’s ethics laws in decades.
The bills would strengthen provisions that prevent lawmakers from immediately becoming lobbyists, expand the powers of the state’s ethics commission and require that financial disclosure reports be posted online.
"Public office is a public trust," Senate President Don Gaetz said in hailing the 40-0 vote. "This legislation means the Florida Senate is serious about ethics reform. Higher ethical standards is just one more difference between Florida senators and Washington senators."
But the measures also contain several changes that critics say would actually weaken existing laws.
“I think it would be a step forward in some ways but several steps backward in others,” said Philip Claypool, a lawyer who served as executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics until retiring in 2011. “The net effect I don’t think would be progress.”
While the legislation allows lawmakers to place investments in a blind trust in an effort to prevent conflicts of interest, for example, it leaves out several safeguards contained in similar laws in other states and at the federal level, Claypool said.
The bills would also allow lawmakers who have filed erroneous or incomplete financial disclosure reports to correct the forms before the ethics commission can investigate, in essence preventing the body from fining officials for their transgressions.
“Basically, they can get away with paying even less attention to the accuracy of a report,” Claypool said.
Gaetz spokeswoman Katie Betta disputed the characterization that the bills loosen existing law. She said the legislation would strengthen the ethics commission by allowing it to receive referrals from other state agencies.