By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Lobbyists hired to influence spending and policy at Florida’s five water management districts must register and disclose their clients under ethics reforms unanimously passed by the Legislature last week.
If signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, the bill would for the first time apply state lobbying regulations to some special-purpose governments that raise and spend hundreds of millions dollars every year.
The final bill, however, is a watered-down version of a tougher Senate proposal that sought to expand the state’s lobbying rules to cover every independent special district in the state that levies property taxes. There are 136 independent districts in Florida; many run by unelected boards that in 2011 imposed more than $1.8 billion in property taxes on homeowners and businesses.
House Republicans weakened the bill as the Legislature neared adjournment Friday. The result: Many large independent taxing districts like the North Broward Hospital District and the Health Care District of Palm Beach – two of the state’s three biggest taxing districts – can continue to do business with lobbyists out of the sunshine.
“This is another step in a good direction, but more work needs to be done,” said Brad Ashwell, the legislative advocate for Common Cause Florida. “I don’t know why this provision was narrowed, but once the bill came out of the House it felt very much like a closed process. It felt like they had pretty much worked out behind the scenes what they could be comfortable with.”
MANY SPECIAL DISTRICTS, NO LOBBYING RULES
BrowardBulldog.org, supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, reported in January that nearly 1,000 independent special districts across Florida do not require lobbyists who appear before them to register, pay fees or disclose any information about themselves or their clients.
A week later, Senate President Don Gaetz and Sen. Jack Latvala, chairman of the Ethics and Elections Committee, announced their support for legislation that would impose on many of the larger special districts the same lobbyist registration and reporting requirements long in place at Executive Branch agencies.
“Broward Bulldog’s reporting has helped raise the profile of the issue,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said at the time.
The Senate passed its tougher version of SB 846 in March, but the bill languished in the House until the final week of the session.
Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Fort Myers, chairs the House Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections that narrowed the bill’s lobbyist registration provisions to cover only Florida’s water management districts.
In an interview Wednesday, Passidomo said she viewed the Senate’s proposal as too sweeping, especially given last year’s extensive ethics reforms.
“We thought we should really incrementalize this,” she said. “So we looked over the entire state and the one we came up with is the water management districts. Let’s start with that. The others don’t have statewide impact.”
If the water districts handle the registration task well, Passidomo said she would consider a bill next year to require more special districts to register lobbyists.
“Absolutely,” she said.
$1 BILLION IN SPENDING
Together, Florida’s water management districts will spend more than $1 billion this year, nearly half of which will come from property tax revenues. The largest of those five special-purpose governments is the South Florida Water Management District.
The SFWMD, with a $622 million annual budget, collects ad valorem taxes in 16 counties, including Broward and Miami-Dade. It is a frequent target of lobbyists who engage staff and a governing board that is appointed by the governor and dominated by real estate, agribusiness and development interests.
The bill requires lobbyists at water management districts to register annually and pay a fee of up to $40 per client. Registration includes a statement from each principal authorizing the lobbyist’s work and identifying the client’s main business, and a statement disclosing the existence of any direct or indirect business or financial relationship between the lobbyist and any officer or employee of the water district.
All lobbyist registrations are public records that must be available online. The bill requires the Commission on Ethics to investigate sworn complaints alleging that a lobbyist or principal has either failed to register or knowingly submitted false information.
While the final bill dropped other notable provisions – including a measure that would have barred sheriffs, property appraisers and other elected constitutional officers from lobbying for profit in Tallahassee – it made several other ethics changes. It requires elected municipal officials to take annual ethics training and authorizes the ethics commission to begin an investigation when officials fail to file financial disclosure reports. The bill also applies portions of the state ethics code to Enterprise Florida and Citizens Property Insurance.