Florida’s ethics reforms offer glimpse of Georgia’s future

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — While reluctant Georgia lawmakers debate a ban on lobbyists gifts, their counterparts in Florida are miles ahead of them — and still struggling with how to control special interests and their money.

In 2005, Florida adopted one of the nation’s strictest gift bans, a prohibition so total that legislators cannot accept even a cup of coffee or glass of wine. Even so, public officials and lobbyists still found loopholes big enough to drive a truckload of cash through.

Now while leaders in Atlanta take their first steps toward addressing voter complaints about the close relationship officials have with lobbyists, politicians in Tallahassee are taking the next ones. Reform is likely in Florida, in part because the state’s top legislative officials are pushing it hard.

“We want to have a higher standard of ethical conduct in public office and in campaigns,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville, Fla., who said he has seen too many abuses of the current system.

Gaetz has made ethics reform his top priority, an impressive decision considering Florida’s term limit laws hold him to just two years as Senate president. He has a partner in new House Speaker Will Weatherford, who is introducing campaign finance reforms meant to complement the Senate ethics bills.

Gaetz said he and Weatherford realize they have to strike now before the movement to improve the law loses momentum. Reform has been tried since the gift ban was enacted, but those efforts were “smothered in the cradle,” he said.

“People respond well to this initiative, but they are cautious,” he said. “To some people it seems improbable that ethics reform this sweeping could pass into law.”

The Florida Legislature passed an outright ban on lobbyists gifts in 2005, replacing a $100 cap on gifts.

Jennifer Green, chair of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, said the old cap had gaps. For example, the gift limit applied to the lobbyist, not the public official.

“You could conceivably get 10 lobbyists together to take one member to dinner,” Green said. “We could each spend the maximum amount. The limit wasn’t on the member.”

That changed with the gift ban, but not entirely for the positive, she said.

When lobbyists could no longer provide free meals or sports tickets, campaign contributions became even more important.

Under Florida law, a candidate’s campaign may not accept more than $500 from a single contributor. But they can set up something called a Committee of Continuous Existence, or CCE, which can receive virtually unlimited amounts of cash which can then be disbursed in a variety of ways, including some dubious uses like the meals, tickets and trips the gift ban tried to end.

CCEs predated the Florida ban, but they have become more popular in recent years as a funnel for money from special interests and some reformers say lawmakers have abused them to maintain their pre-ban lifestyle.

Either way, Green said the loophole in the law mocks the idea of a ban.

“It is insane for me to think that if you are a member of the Legislature I can sit down with you and I cannot give you a bottle of water in my office or anywhere, but I can hand you a check for $50,000,” she said.

That does not mean the ban had no effect.

‘Considerably less grotesque’

“It changed the culture of Tallahassee significantly,” said Mark Hollis, the House Democratic spokesman, who was a statehouse reporter for the Sun Sentinel newspaper when the ban passed. “It is considerably less grotesque than it was then.”

Green said lobbyists are still spending money on lawmakers, but now it is all diverted to campaign contributions.

In fact, since the ban was enacted expectations have grown that lobbyists would contribute more heavily to a lawmaker’s re-election campaign, she said. And as members began exploiting the use of CCEs, the cost of running for the state Legislature exploded, she said.

“I think the Legislature knew that that would (happen),” she said. “We all talk about fatigue. It’s hard to raise money. … You give one check to a candidate and they are like, ‘This is great. What can your other clients do?’”

According to The National Institute on Money in State Politics, the money involved in Florida’s state legislative races has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2004, total contributions to all House and Senate races topped $23.6 million. Last year, the total was $43.6 million.

This is exactly the kind of thing some legislators involved in crafting Georgia’s reform bill are hoping to avoid. House Majority Whip Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, said he and others involved in crafting the proposed lobby gift ban in the House looked carefully for examples — and problems — in other states.

Florida’s “rather flourishing underground system of payments” was something Georgia does not need to replicate, he said.

The bill proposed by House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, establishes a ban on gifts but includes numerous exceptions. Group events, such as lobbyist-funded dinners for committees or caucuses, would remain, as would most travel to conferences and meetings.

The bill, which passed the House overwhelmingly on Monday, would eliminate private dinners, sports tickets and similar gratuities targeted at a single lawmaker or a small group of them.

“What are the things that folks are most concerned about?” Lindsey said. “It seems it’s the smaller, more expensive outings, so that’s what we concentrated on.”

‘Culture of schmooze’

While Florida’s example has detractors, many say that it has achieved its desired result. In fact, some in Tallahassee say the gift ban was a culture shift just like the one government watchdogs in Atlanta are seeking.

“I think it’s been effective in what I used to call the culture of schmooze,” said Ben Wilcox, research director at the non-profit policy group Integrity Florida. “We had instances, anecdotally, that there would be a group of legislators who were going out to dinner and they would call a lobbyist and say, ‘Give me your credit card number.’ It had gotten that bad.”

The ban created a public separation between legislator and lobbyist that everyone — lobbyists, legislators and ethics watchdogs — agree is studiously observed.

“We go to receptions that we are invited to and keep our hands by our sides to make sure we don’t eat a piece of cheese or drink a glass of wine,” said Rep. Janet Cruz, the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Subcommittee. “I think it is a little bit too restrictive, I really do. … But I understand where it is coming from. People want the perception that their legislators are above board and they don’t want any perception that they are not.”

Legislators complain the ban is so strict that it limits their ability to interact with their constituents. If a group in a legislator’s district has a registered lobbyist and invites the legislator to speak at its annual chicken dinner, the legislator must pay for the meal.

But the ban is popular with voters, and efforts to loosen it have not gotten very far.

Instead, the new House speaker and the new president of the Senate have worked together to take the next step with legislation to close loopholes in the gift ban and reform the campaign finance system.

‘Money pump’

Gaetz’s bills ban officials from receiving gifts from CCEs, prohibit legislators from voting on items where they have a conflict of interest and limit lawmakers from “double dipping” by taking a second government job. The president also required senators to take a one-hour ethics training course.

On the House side, Republican Speaker Will Weatherford has proposed a number of campaign finance changes, including eliminating the troublesome CCEs entirely and their ability to raise unlimited cash. The proposal would also raise the individual contribution limit to campaign accounts to $10,000. Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, said raising the contribution limit is preferable to having CCEs operating as a “money pump” with little public transparency.

“The $500 contribution limit has failed to achieve its original goals,” he said. “The $500 limit has just encouraged less disclosure of who is really funding political campaigns in Florida.”

‘Why we have laws’

Gaetz said he has heard the complaints about trying to pass ethics reform, including the refrain familiar heard at the Georgia State Capitol that the only way to have an ethical legislature is to elect ethical people. Legislating ethics is a fool’s errand, the argument goes.

Gaetz leans on his degree in theology to counter this reasoning.

“These are ordinary people, and ordinary people get tempted to do bad things by bad people. That’s why we have laws. There’s a theological basis for that and there’s a basis in our civic religion – in our constitution,” he said. “I’m not going to look for the 10 people without sin. I’m going to look instead for ways to curb abuse, and in an imperfect world, give the public more confidence.”

The gift ban was a start, an “essential step,” but not the end, he said.

“If we were doing what we are doing now without a gift ban (already in place), we’d have to do a gift ban next,” he said. “One way or the other, you have to deal with gifts and ethical standards.”

No scandal as backdrop

Both Georgia and Florida are re-examining their ethics laws without the political scandal that usually provokes reform. In Florida, the bills are being pushed by legislative leaders, while in Georgia the pressure to change largely came from voters who signaled their desire on non-binding ballot questions in last summer’s primary.

Lindsey said he thinks it is a positive that Georgia is debating these changes outside of a political scandal.

“It’s better because it is not such a knee-jerk reaction. We look at what is going to work and what is not going to work,” he said.

Whether lawmakers ultimately adopt the House gift ban or a cap similar to the $100 ceiling senators adopted in January, Lindsey said it won’t be the last word on ethics.

“Every few years we are going to have to come back and take a look at what we have done and correct course,” he said. “That’s the inevitable nature of ethics laws.”

While he sees campaign finance as a separate issue from the lobbying ban, he does not rule out that the ban may have unforeseen effects.

“That’s one of the things you’ll have to ask me in a few years,” he said.

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