Legislature's ethics bills still have loopholes
Kelli Stargel sometimes must evict tenants from the rental properties she and her husband own in Polk County, a process that can be cumbersome.
But it might soon be getting easier - Stargel, in her other job as a state senator, is sponsoring a bill that critics contend would take away rights from millions of Florida renters.
Under Florida law, that's not a conflict of interest. And she's not alone.
Legislators who work for hospitals sponsor and vote on bills that benefit hospitals, for example. Legislators connected to charter and online schools sponsor and vote on bills that benefit those enterprises.
And it's likely to stay that way.
Despite tough talk about beefing up the state's ethics laws, these types of conflict will remain even if a bill passes before the legislative session ends May 3.
The measures being considered would only prevent legislators from voting on bills that would create a financial gain for just themselves. Legislators could still vote on bills that benefit themselves if they also benefit a larger group.
"Part-time legislatures often attract diverse people with real-world experience to government but such a system has built-in conflicts of interest," said Dan Krassner, executive director of the independent government watchdog group Integrity Florida.
There's a common refrain that comes from those that are involved in the process: Florida's Legislature is made up of 160 citizens who have outside jobs. They use these jobs as practical experience to help guide them in passing bills.
Stargel, R-Lakeland, echoes that position when talking about her decision to sponsor the landlord-tenant bill, which, for example, would allow landlords to still evict renters even if they took a partial payment.
"Nothing in this bill is specific to just me, or narrowly drafted in a way that could be construed to just me," Stargel said.
Stargel said that the Legislature is helped by people who have a background in legislation under consideration. She said it would be "ignorant" to not rely on educators, for example, when considering education bills.
Under existing ethics rules adopted by the House and Senate, legislators must abstain from voting on anything that benefits them directly. They must file a disclosure form if they abstain or if they vote on something that would benefit their employer or a family member. Pending bills would make it state law.
The ethics bill would make some significant changes, including making it harder for lawmakers to take a position with local governments or school districts. It would also clamp down on legislators lobbying state agencies and the governor after they leave office.
But the existing disclosure requirements don't apply to Stargel. Senate records show that she has not filed a disclosure form.
Krassner said the key to making sure that politicians are held accountable is to force them to be open about their finances.
"Disclosure is the key to accountability," Krassner said. "Ultimately it's up to voters to decide if their representative is using their office for personal gain or to serve the public interest."
A review of current disclosure forms that are currently required show that some legislators note potential conflicts "out of an abundance of caution" even if they are involved in decisions that affect more than just themselves.
Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland and House budget chief, filed a disclosure because he serves as a volunteer on the governing board of a charter school system that includes the school his children attend.
Florida Department of Education records show that the schools are among those already receiving funding from the state. The House budget would double the amount of money available to charter schools for school construction and other capital needs from $55 million to $100 million.
On his form, McKeel insisted that nothing he was doing "will result in policy or appropriations inuring to my own personal gain in any way."
There are plenty of other examples from this session where legislators' professional lives are mixing with their roles as lawmakers.
Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, led a fierce charge in a House panel this week to get the members to accept billions in federal aid to help provide health insurance coverage to the state's poor. Fasano's own financial disclosure shows he earned $92,000 in 2011 working for Florida Hospital in Zephyrhills. Florida's non-profit hospitals are actively lobbying to get the Legislature to accept the aid.
Sen. Bill Montford of Tallahassee is the leading Democrat on the panels that pass education bills and oversee school funding.
Yet Montford is also getting paid $180,000 a year as chief executive officer of the association that represents the state's school superintendents. School districts will be directly affected by any education bills and by funding in the state budget.
Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami and House education budget chairman, is a land-use consultant who has done work for a charter school management company owned by his brother-in-law. The schools run by Academica are among those that are receiving funds currently from the state.
Mark Herron, a Tallahassee attorney who represents many politicians before the state's ethics commission, said the problem with getting even stricter about conflicts is that it would leave lawmakers unable to vote on many items that come before them.
"It would just make it very broad," he said.