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Senate leaders want special districts covered by state lobbyist registration laws

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org 

Senate President Don Gaetz, right, and Sen. Jack Latvala, chairman of the Ethics and Elections Committee

Senate President Don Gaetz, right, and Sen. Jack Latvala, chairman of the Ethics and Elections Committee

Key lawmakers in Tallahassee say they will introduce reform legislation this session to require lobbyists at independent special districts to publicly register and disclose who they work for and how much they’re being paid.

Those often obscure, special-purpose governments spend billions of public dollars every year raised from taxpayers or through bond sales, fees or assessments. They outnumber Florida’s counties, cities, towns and villages more than two to one.

Yet as BrowardBulldog.org reported last week, only three independent special districts have adopted any kind of lobbyist registration requirements.

Legislators from both parties supported a change in state law to make lobbyist registration mandatory at special districts.

“This is an area that we intend to deal with in a second ethics bill that will come before the Legislature this year,” said Senate President Don Gaetz. “There are a number of things that either didn’t get in last year’s ethics bill, or weren’t contemplated, and this is one of them.”

“I personally support the idea that ethical standards, including lobbyist registration, apply to special districts,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “Broward Bulldog’s reporting has helped raise the profile of the issue.”

Gaetz also wants to make registration obligatory for all local governments, which also are not covered by state lobbyist regulations.

Most of Florida’s larger counties and cities have enacted lobbyist registration ordinances to promote integrity and transparency in the decision-making process. A notable exception: the city of Lakeland, with a 2012 citywide budget of $556.1 million.

In November 2011, however, a little-noticed survey by the Florida League of Cities found that “only 15 percent of municipalities require lobbyists to register in their city.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who chairs the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, is working with Gaetz to assemble the new ethics bill. He said he was surprised to learn about the lack of lobbyist registration at special districts.

“It never dawned on me that these special districts would not have some sort of lobbying mechanism for registration,” Latvala said. “I think it’s especially important for the water management districts and other large districts, but there are a lot of small independent special districts and I’m not sure whether they have enough staff to keep up with this.”

Sen. Jeremy Ring of Parkland

Sen. Jeremy Ring of Parkland

Sen. Jeremy Ring, chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability, called independent special districts a “shadow government.”

“Special districts should have lobbyist registration,” said Ring, D-Parkland. “They have gotten away with this because they are government out of the sunshine. We need to start treating them more as if they are in it.”

Independent special districts provide dozens of specialized services to residents across the state, including hospitals, ports and airports, mosquito control, transportation and highways and community development. Collectively, they spend in excess of $11 billion in public funds annually.

BrowardBulldog.org, supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, documented the absence of lobbyist registration at nearly all of Florida’s 992 independent special districts.

House Speaker Will Weatherford issued a statement indicating he intends to follow the Senate’s lead about ethics reform, including the expansion of laws regarding lobbyist registration requirements.

“Last year, the Legislature passed a historic ethics reform bill and President Gaetz was a tremendous leader on the issue. I look forward to working with him on the issue again this year,” said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Gov. Rick Scott likewise appears receptive to the idea of reform.

“Governor Scott looks forward to working with the Legislature to make sure special taxing districts operate as transparently as possible so taxpayers can hold them accountable,” said Jackie Schutz, the governor’s press secretary.

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