The fourth time may be a charm for an ethics bill sponsored by Florida Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland.
On Wednesday, the Senate government oversight panel approved the measure, which Dockery has sponsored three times in the past. The bill would create a code of ethics barring lawmakers from voting on or otherwise supporting measures that would benefit themselves, their families, and their business associates.
Dockery said bills tend to get killed by not being heard. The fact that hers is now moving through the process may be a sign that it will actually get somewhere this year. Government oversight was the first of four committees. The norm under Senate President Mike Haridopolos has been three.
Ormond Beach Republican Fred Costello is supporting a similar measure in the House. It’s been sitting in the Government Operations Subcommittee for three weeks and is not set to be taken up when the panel meets on Friday.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said it was “way past time” for such a measure. A bill he sponsored that would increase penalties for public corruption was voted down in the Senate Rules Committee earlier this week.
“Some of our colleagues, and I emphasize some of our colleagues, are not getting the message,” he said.
Current rules allow senators to vote on measures that would benefit them or their families as long as they make public disclosures. Members of the House are barred from voting on matters on which they have a conflict of interest. Dockery’s measure would prevent members from introducing or otherwise supporting measures that would benefit them, their families, or their business associates. It does not create criminal penalties.
Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff voted for Dockery’s bill, but said there could be too many potential conflicts for some members to keep up with if the measure isn’t changed before it gets to the floor. How could a lawyer working for a firm with dozens of attorneys and hundreds of clients be expected to keep track of every measure that could benefit their business associates?
“We have to narrow this substantially,” she said.
Bogdanoff said the grand jury that recommended the plan was made up of laypeople, and she warned against “reacting too quickly” based on its recommendations and the surrounding media coverage.
Dockery said the grand jury had simply included in its recommendations a bill she’d been backing for years in an effort to restore trust in public officials in a state that is currently No. 1 in public corruption.
Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, has kept herself off committees dealing with higher education (she teaches at a community college) and from votes affecting the television industry, in which her husband works, a practice she describes as “ethical conservatism” — a doctrine that has yet to be prescribed in statute.
Rep. Costello, who is sponsoring the House version of Dockery’s bill, said there’s nothing wrong with having a conflict of interest, as long as it’s disclosed and there are measures in place to prevent it from affecting legislation.
“Let’s let the public know that we’re willing to submit ourselves to the highest standards so they can feel comfortable,” he said.