By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the incoming Florida Senate president, said he would tackle ethics reform in the next legislative session.
In the past, state legislators have tried to reform ethics laws and make it harder for legislators to write laws that would benefit them personally.
Last year’s effort to change ethics laws was shot down when it became clear that state lawmakers — who decide how much money universities receive from the state — could not hold a job or a contract with a university in the state at the same time, if the ethics bill passed.
Gaetz co-sponsored the bill last year, but he was unable to sell his colleagues on its necessity.
There have been several cases of legislators who landed high-paying jobs with the university system as a result of being elected, said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the bill’s co-sponsor.
Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach resigned in 2008 from her $120,000 per year position at Florida State University. She said implementing the bill would make the Legislature lose important expertise about the needs of the state university system.
“I think this is setting a precedent that should never be set for any profession,” she said.
Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, who also helped sink the bill, is a vice president at St. Petersburg College.
The proposal’s other component, which got little attention, outlines requirements for public officials, including the governor, to place assets that could pose a conflict of interest into blind trusts.
There are currently no safeguards in place stopping a state legislator from writing legislation that can benefit them personally.
However, Gaetz told reporters this week that he is committed to changing that.
After years of stalled reform proposals and a 2010 grand jury report that said the Sunshine State was rife with public corruption, incoming Senate President Don Gaetz said Tuesday that ethics reform will take center stage when lawmakers return to Tallahassee next year.
“I think that we ought to raise the standard of ethical conduct in the Legislature and among public officials in this state generally,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in a round table with reporters.
Specifically, Gaetz wants lawmakers to take a look at prohibiting lawmakers (except teachers) from drawing a second public paycheck while in office; banning lawmakers from voting on issues if they have a conflict of interest; and making financial disclosure statements easily available online. They’re now available from Tallahassee only by request.
But, most notably, he said that he would be in favor of getting rid of powerful campaign fundraising committees that can raise millions of dollars and serve as a virtual slush fund for lawmakers.
Conversely, one of the incoming leaders of the Florida House has received scrutiny for benefitting from these lax rules.
State Rep. Chris Dorworth, R- Lake Mary, has been making some big money from special interests for his political action committee, while simultaneously facing some personally tough financial times as a real estate agent in Florida.
In essence, he might be in the hole for quite a bit of money, but he has been able to skate by because of his powerful, well-funded political slush fund.
Dorworth might also be able to turn around his financial troubles, which are tied to the suffering real estate market, because he wrote an amendment to the state Constitution that needs the approval of voters on Nov. 6. The ballot measure is aimed at helping the real estate market, perhaps at the expense at local governments.
Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan group focused on fixing the state’s many ethics problems, has signaled that this upcoming year might be the year ethics reform is passed.