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Gov. Scott signs ethics bill; Lobbyists at water districts must register and disclose

By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org wmds

Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Friday a state ethics bill that requires lobbyists at Florida’s five water management districts to register and disclose who they’re working for and how much they’re being paid.

The new law that takes effect July 1 marks the first time state lobbyist regulations have been applied to any of the state’s independent special districts – limited purpose governments that raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

“It’s encouraging that for the second year in a row, the governor and legislature have advanced anti-corruption measures aimed at improving public trust in government,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of the nonpartisan research institute and government watchdog group Integrity Florida. “While more work will be needed in the future to take on corruption, state lawmakers are moving in the right direction.”

The final bill (SB 846) was a diminished version of the original Senate ethics bill sponsored by Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who chair of the Ethics and Elections Committee. Under the Senate plan, all 136 independent special districts in the state that levies property taxes would have been required to register and disclose lobbyists who appear before them.

NO LOBBYIST REGISTRATION AT NORTH BROWARD HOSPITAL DISTRICT 

Florida’s taxing districts, many run by unelected boards, levied more than $1.8 billion in property taxes on homeowners and businesses in 2011. The new law means that districts such as the $1 billion North Broward Hospital District and the $483 million Health Care District of Palm Beach –  two of the three biggest taxing districts in the state – can continue to do business with lobbyists out of the sunshine.

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 to register, pays fees or disclose any information about themselves or their clients.

A week later Latvala and Senate President Don Gaetz announced their support for legislation to impose on larger special districts registration requirements long in place for lobbyists at Executive Branch agencies.

“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.”

The Senate passed the bill 38-0. But the bill languished in the House where House Ethics and Elections Chair Kathleen Passidomo, R-Fort Myers, considered it to broad. Her committee decided to begin by imposing the new requirements only on water management districts. The bill passed the House 118-0 on May 1.

If registration works smoothly at the water districts, Passidomo said, she will consider requiring more special districts to register lobbyists.

WATER DISTRICTS TO SPEND $1 BILLION THIS YEAR

Florida’s water management districts will spend more than $1 billion this year, with nearly half of that money coming from property tax revenues.

The South Florida Water Management District, with a $622 million annual budget, is the largest of the five districts. It collects taxes in 16 counties, including Broward and Miami-Dade, and is a frequent target of lobbyists who engage staff and a governing board dominated by real estate, agribusiness and development interests.

The new law requires lobbyists at water management districts to register annually, disclose 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 relationship between the lobbyist or any officer or water district employee.

All lobbyist registration records are public records that must be available online.

The new law includes other changes to Florida’s ethics laws:

  • Allows the Florida Commission on Ethics to initiate investigations when state officials fail to file financial disclosure reports.
  • Requires annual ethics training for elected municipal officials
  • Applies portions of the state ethics code to Enterprise Florida and Citizens Property Insurance Corporation.
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  • This is a good step in the right direction. Thanks Broward Bulldog for contributing to it. However, more is needed. How about financial AND performance audits of all the “off the record” organizations that are supported by public resources and influence public policy without any notice or input from private citizens. Remember “we the people”?

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