Ethics Bill Stalls in State Senate until 2013 Session

Supporters of a legislative ethics bill argue that Florida lawmakers should not be allowed to work at public universities.

Florida legislators last week voted down the bill that would have prevented what many consider the unethical situation of lawmakers controlling the money that pays them.

After the bill failed, questions about the connection between legislators and state universities and colleges surfaced.

Former House Speaker Ray Sansom was talked about in the discussion about the bill.

Sansom was hired by Northwest Florida State College the same day he was sworn into office as House speaker in 2008.

In December 2008, a resident of Clearwater filed a complaint when Sansom was rewarded a job with an annual salary of $110,000 after bringing millions to his hometown college during budget cuts.

In April 2009, a grand jury indicted Sansom on a third-degree felony of official misconduct, an unlawful act that affects the performance of official duties.

Critics of officials circled around the Capitol after the vote ended in a tie. Ethics bill co-sponsor Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said it’s strange when legislators make money in places they bring money to.

“When all, or nearly all, of your income derives from appropriations that you vote on, you have what appears to be a conflict of interest,” said Gaetz.

Some opponents of the measure blamed media for instigating the issue after recent scandals surfaced. Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, wants public officials to be held accountable for their unethical acts.

Thrasher sponsored the bill after the incident with Sansom. “The legislature will clean up its act,” he said.

Since the bill requires a restriction on employment within state universities, or Florida College System institutions for any member in the legislature, Sansom could be terminated.

Experts argue that if the legislation was approved, other lawmakers that work for these institutions, including Senate President Mike Haridopolos, could also be terminated.

Researchers say Haridopolos accepted the highest paid salary in the University of Florida’s political department in 2008.

Critics of the process say Haridopolos proposed an impossible feat, assigning the ethics bill to five different committees in a nine-week session.

“Senate and House leaders often stall bills if they dislike the legislation or the bill’s sponsor,” said Peter Butzin, the state chairman of Common Cause Florida.

After the ethics bill ended in a 6-6 vote, supporters of SB 1560 realized they would have to wait until next session to argue why the issue should be removed.

Supporters of the bill say if a person makes unethical decisions, it is not likely a bill will change that.

“I would hope that members would vote for this bill so that we can send a message that this legislature is going to clean up its act,” said Gaetz. “We’re not going to have people serving in the legislature having all, or nearly all, of their income derived from appropriations they vote for.”