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Florida ethics bill: Lobbyists at independent taxing districts must register, disclose

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org floridaseal

A government ethics bill introduced in the Florida Senate would for the first time require lobbyists before many large independent special districts to register and disclose their clients, areas of interest and general compensation.

If enacted, the sweeping new registration requirements would apply to every independent special district across Florida that levies property taxes – from water management and hospital districts to children’s services councils and improvement districts.

Florida has 136 independent districts, many run by unelected boards that impose ad valorem taxes on homeowners and businesses, according to data from the Department of Revenue. Not all exercise that power, but in 2011 those that did levied more than $1.82 billion in property taxes.

The three independent special districts that collect the most property tax dollars are the South Florida Water Management District, North Broward Hospital District and the Health Care District of Palm Beach.

Senate Bill 846, filed last week by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, was filed less than a month after BrowardBulldog.org reported how Florida independent special districts that raise and spend billions of dollars in public funds every year do not require lobbyists to register or disclose any information about themselves or their clients.

The bill seeks to impose on independent special districts the same registration and reporting requirements now faced by lobbyists at the Executive Branch. Those requirements include annual registration before lobbying can commence, the filing of quarterly compensation reports and a ban on expenditures.

Latvala’s committee has scheduled the bill for an initial hearing on Feb. 17.

“Generally, it would be fair to characterize Integrity Florida’s first look at Senate Bill 846 as containing several solutions that would strengthen ethics laws in Florida,” said Integrity Florida’s executive director, Dan Krassner. “We look forward to hearing more about it at the hearing.”

In addition to expanding Florida’s lobbying regulations, the bill would also:

  • Require elected municipal officers across the state to participate in annual ethics training and certify to that participation on their annual financial disclosure forms.
  • Apply Florida’s Code of Ethics for Public Officers and Employees regarding gifts and conflicts of interest to officials and members of the boards of Enterprise Florida, Space Florida, the Florida Development Finance Corp. and the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corp.
  • Establish revolving door prohibitions that would bar departing public officials at those entities, and Citizens Property Insurance Corp., from returning to lobby within two years.
  • Authorize Florida’s Commission on Ethics to initiate investigations and public hearings regarding any failures to file a full annual financial disclosure form. If violations are found to be “willful,” the commission would have to recommend an official’s removal from public office.
  • Toughen the collection of unpaid ethics fines. Government employers would be authorized to withhold the entire amount of an ethics fine, plus related costs, from a violator’s paycheck, unless hardship could be proven. The ethics commission would be allowed to seek wage garnishment from private employers, and refer unpaid fines to a collection agency.

The bill has the support of Senate President Don Gaetz. If passed and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, it would take effect July 1.

The measure marks a second round for ethics reform that began last year. That legislation gave the ethics commission the power to investigate complaints referred by law enforcement and the governor, and allowed public officials to put their personal assets into what the law calls “blind trusts” to avoid conflicts of interest.

Florida’s independent special districts provide dozens of specialized governmental services such as ports, airports, mosquito control, community development, water management and public hospitals. They outnumber Florida’s counties, cities, towns and villages by more than two to one, yet operate largely in the shadow of their better-known municipal counterparts.

In all, there are nearly 1,000 independent special districts in Florida. Collectively, they spend in excess of $10 billion every year. Many, however, are so small they never encounter a lobbyist seeking to influence a contract or policy.

Under Latvala’s 26-page bill, lobbyist regulation requirements would be confined to independent taxing districts. Hundreds of small districts, many with budgets of less than $10 million a year, that use bonds or assessments to raise revenues won’t be included in the new rules.

Some big budget operations are also are not covered by Latvala’s bill. For example, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, the independent special district that runs Tampa International Airport, also does not levy ad valorem taxes.

 

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