Sunshine Week Editorial

By: Don Gaetz, Florida Senate President 

The passing of former Governor Reubin Askew left a lonesome place against the Florida sky last week as our state lost one of the earliest and strongest advocates for government in the sunshine.

While representing Northwest Florida in the State Senate in the 1960s, Governor Askew successfully advocated for the prohibition against committees meeting without a quorum and for the elimination of voting by proxy.

As Governor, Reubin Askew famously organized Florida’s first successful citizen petition initiative, resulting in the adoption of the Sunshine Amendment, which was approved by nearly 80 percent of voters and instituted many of the ethics standards still in place today.

Prior to our being sworn in as presiding officers of the House and Senate in the fall of 2012, Speaker Weatherford and I set a specific goal. During our tenure, we would work to raise the standard of conduct among elected officials, to improve Florida’s reputation as the government in the sunshine state, and to review, update, clarify and improve existing ethics and transparency laws.

Last year, the House and Senate worked in a bipartisan, bicameral fashion to build on Governor Askew’s legacy through the passage of ethics reform legislation that places elected officials’ financial disclosures online, provides the Commission on Ethics with more authority and requires state officers to abstain from voting on matters that benefit them directly. The 2013 legislation also requires ethics training for constitutional officers, places greater restrictions on public employment while in office, and prohibits officials from accepting gifts from political committees.

During the 2014 legislative session, supported by Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, the Senate is prepared for a floor vote on a bipartisan legislative proposal to substantially amend public records and public meetings laws by clarifying how the public may access records and how agencies should respond. This legislation, Senate Bill 1648, brings additional transparency to organizations that accept membership fees from the government and to businesses with government contracts, and requires agencies to appropriately train their employees regarding Florida’s public records laws.

Additionally this session, Speaker Weatherford and I included in our joint agenda, Work Plan 2014, several proposals to further extend ethics and open government reforms. Now entering the third week of session, with bipartisan support in our respective chambers, we have already made significant headway.

First, we dusted off the law requiring lobbyist compensation audits, passed in 2005 but never enforced. It is an important part of open government to know who is spending how much on whom to advocate for public policy positions. A joint committee established scope of work for these audits, which will begin for quarterly reports filed this year.

Next, to address the issue of legislative residency, raised at various times by both parties, on the first day of session, the legislature passed a joint rule that will explicitly set forth what residency means and how and by whom the residency rule is enforced.

Now ready for a vote on the Senate floor, Senate Bill 846 extends specific provisions within the Code of Ethics, such as anti-nepotism provisions, the voting conflict standards, and post-employment lobbying restrictions, to statutorily created quasi-governmental entities, like the Florida Clerk of Courts, Enterprise Florida, and Citizens Property Insurance. Under this proposal, Direct Support Organizations (DSOs) and Citizen Support Organizations (CSOs) would be required to adopt their own Code of Ethics at least as stringent as the state’s, elected municipal officers, like constitutional officers, would be required to complete four hours of ethics training annually, and the Commission on Ethics would be given the authority to investigate individuals who refuse to file their annual financial disclosure.

A second proposal, Senate Bill 1194 requires each DSO or CSO to annually submit a report to their “parent” agency. The report will then be available on the agency website. The legislation also creates a five-year sunset review provision for laws creating or authorizing each DSO or CSO in existence on July 1, 2014, and for any such organization created or authorized in the future.

DSOs and CSOs often perform the traditional functions of government. They receive taxpayer funds. They operate under the endorsement of government. They represent government officials and government interests. For better or worse, their activities become synonymous with government. 2014 ethics legislation will increase transparency and accountability within statutorily-created CSOs and DSOs, so we can ensure Florida taxpayers that entities which are in some cases indistinguishable from government have the proper oversight of government. Senate Bill 1194 has one stop left before the Senate floor, and I’m hopeful that this bill, along with SB 1648 and SB 648 will receive bipartisan, bicameral support.

Despite the hard work and best intentions of elected officials, the only perfect laws were the 10 Moses brought down from the mountain. So I agree with another former Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, who is fond of saying, “reform is never finished, success is never final.” My hope is that when we close the books on this session, we can tell Floridians we did our part, and in this small way we can uphold the great legacy of government in the sunshine started by our friend Reubin Askew. May he rest in peace.

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