By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A bill to broaden water management district lobbyist registration rules to apply to hospital districts, expressway and port authorities, children’s services districts and other special taxing districts with budgets in excess of $5 million is moving through the Florida Senate.
More than a half-dozen large, special-purpose taxing districts in South Florida would be impacted by the change. The biggest: the North Broward Hospital District, also known as Broward Health, which levied nearly $150 million in property taxes in 2012.
SB1372, sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, seeks to build on ethics reforms enacted last year while he was Senate president that for the first time applied state lobbying rules to special-purpose governments that raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
The proposed changes in this year’s omnibus government accountability bill would require lobbyists to publicly register, identify their clients and disclose any direct or indirect business or financial relationships with officials or employees of the entity being lobbied.
“Our bill has progressed well through both the House and the Senate,” said Gaetz, referring to a related measure, HB1063, sponsored by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Eustis. “I’m reasonably certain that the bill will get to the floor” for a vote.
The bill is a further legislative response to a January 2014 investigation by FloridaBulldog.org – formerly known as Broward Bulldog – that found nearly all of the state’s 1,000 independent special districts do not require lobbyists who appear before them to register or disclose any information about themselves or their clients. Collectively, those limited-purpose governments raise and spend billions in public dollars every year.
“Bulldog’s reporting has helped raise the profile of the issue,” Gaetz said of the investigation that was supported by a grant from the Washington-based Fund for Investigative Journalism.
‘A LOGICAL EXTENSION’
Frank Palen, a West Palm Beach attorney who specializes in government law and special districts, called the proposal “a logical extension of last year’s bill.”
“The goal should always be to encourage maximum transparency. I think this bill achieves that goal without imposing significant administrative burdens or costs by focusing on the types of districts that should most interest the public,” Palen said.
There are 134 active independent special districts in Florida with ad valorem taxing power, including those that provide libraries, utilities and fire and mosquito control.
Other smaller districts, where lobbyists are rarely seen, rely on various user fees, assessments, tolls and other sources to finance and maintain facilities.
This year’s bill is currently before the Senate Rules Committee after sailing through two other committees by unanimous votes last month. It obliges the state ethics commission to investigate sworn complaints about registration violations and to make findings and recommendations to the governor, which can include penalties ranging from public censure to a fine or restitution.
Lobbyists would be required to pay an annual fee of $40 for each client to fund the registration system if the bill passes.
The bill includes other changes to governmental ethics policies, notably making it a first-degree misdemeanor for government officials to provide prohibited extra compensation such as bonuses, golden parachutes or hush money to state officials or contractors.
That provision was met with strong opposition, particularly from public hospitals. “There are lots of people working behind the scenes on this, demanding exemptions from the bill,” Gaetz said.
One of those who pushed on the hospitals’ behalf was Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, but he withdrew his amendment.
The bill would also require counties and school boards to take action in response to the recommendations of auditors. It would also strengthen collection methods against politicians and state employees with unpaid fines for violations of financial disclosure requirements.
Other reforms include post-employment lobbying restrictions would also be applied to certain individuals with Enterprise Florida, its divisions and the Florida Development Finance Corporation.