Rules Designed to Restore Voter Trust

Nov 20, 2016 by

Two weeks after the general election, Florida legislators gather in Tallahassee for an organizational session where the newly elected representatives and senators will be sworn in.

The speaker of the House and the Senate president will officially be voted into their leadership posts and will each present a set of rules that lays out how the House and Senate chambers will operate for the next two years. The rules need to be approved by the members but are rarely voted down.

Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants drastic changes for how House members will conduct business. Corcoran’s rules address the pervasive distrust of the political system that we saw on display over the past year and a half. After years in the legislative process—as staff and as an elected official—Corcoran believes behavioral change is needed for those making laws and spending taxpayers’ money.

The Florida Legislature generally resists efforts for more transparency, more accountability and higher ethical standards. The status quo works well for legislators and lobbyists.

There’s a lot of money, influence and power at play in how candidates are elected, how policy is made and how budgets are crafted. Our elected representatives are supposed to be held accountable by voters who can kick them out of office. But how are voters to know if anything inappropriate, unethical or immoral is occurring?

During my 16 years in the Legislature, I tried for several years to pass ethics reform bills addressing some of the abuses, improprieties and conflicts of interest. The bills seldom got a hearing and died slow, painful deaths. When legislative leaders don’t want bills to pass, they don’t.

As this last election illustrated, voters are distrustful of government and of the reporters who cover it. We know that big corporations hire lobbyists to influence the outcome of policy changes—to push those that benefit them and kill those that negatively affect them.

Several years ago lobbyists were required to start reporting their total fees. Those disclosures show that lobbyists were paid more than $100 million a year to influence Florida’s Legislature and governor. That doesn’t include the tens of millions in campaign contributions flowing to candidates, political parties and political committees from lobbyists and their clients.

Lobbyists aren’t bad people; they’re our friends, relatives and neighbors. But they have a job to do and they’re accountable to the organizations that hire them.

Legislators have a job to do, too, and they need to be accountable to the voters.
Most legislators are good people who want to do right by the folks they represent. But some behaviors that are the norm in the remote bubble of Tallahassee insiders would be objectionable to the average voter.

Corcoran is changing the cozy culture of business as usual with rules that would be in effect for the two years he’ll be at the helm of his chamber.

It’s a bold departure from current practice and sure to have detractors, but most will keep their criticism to themselves if their success is contingent on a good relationship with the most powerful man in the Florida House.

Any dramatic change can cause unintended consequences so the proposed rules need to be thoroughly vetted and weighed against the potential for gridlock with the Florida Senate.

The devil is always in the details, but his proposed changes have merit.

Some put requirements directly on those lobbying the House. Lobbyists would be banned from using emails or text messages to communicate with House members during committee meetings or on the House floor.

Lobbyists are required to electronically disclose the specific bills and amendments they are working on. This would make it easier to compare lobbyist contributions to legislator voting records.

House members would be prohibited from traveling on lobbyist-owned planes even though they are currently permitted to if they pay the commercial rate for the trip.

It would be harder for legislators to sneak something into the budget. They would have to file a bill for each budget request. This would create a record of who asked for each project funded. I love the concept but worry it could lead to an impasse in budget conference if the Senate rules are different.

House members would not be able to lobby for six years after leaving office. They would have to disclose new employment with any entity that receives state money and would be prohibited from having business or financial dealings with lobbyists or their clients.

The Senate is unlikely to support similar measures.

Kudos to Corcoran for taking the ethical path less traveled. It just might lead to more permanent reform.

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