Gift ban tweak stays out of Senate ethics reformby Dara Kam | February 19th, 2013
Seven years ago, then-Senate President Tom Lee pushed a gift ban that essentially barred lobbyists from giving gifts of any kind – except flowers and plaques on the opening day of the legislative session – to lawmakers.
Lee, a Brandon Republican, wanted to put an end to what he called lawmakers out-of-control wining and dining at the expense of lobbyists perhaps looking for a payback for lavish meals.
After returning to the Florida Senate as a freshman this year, Lee is willing to modify the ban after hearing “a parade of horribles” from lawmakers who say the gift ban bars them from participating in receptions held by groups as innocuous as the Boys and Girls Clubs because they fear violating the ban.
Lee had hoped to include the tweak in an ethics reform package, a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, headed to the floor after the Senate Rules Committee unanimously signed off on the measure this afternoon.
But Lee said including changes to the gift ban in the ethics bill was “a non-starter from the president’s perspective” and will instead file a stand-alone bill to deal with the issue instead.
Gaetz didn’t want his fast-tracked priority ethics reform, expected to get a Senate floor vote possible on the first day of the legislative session in two weeks, to get bogged down in a debate over whether the Legislature was watering down the gift ban.
“I would have been happy with it being in this bill. But it’s just taken a while to get it together. And this bill is moving pretty rapidly. So we’re going to make sure he’s got a bill spot for that,” Sen. Jack Latvala, the St. Petersburg Republican who sponsored the ethics package (SB 2), said.
Lee said he’s trying to “find a way to ensure that the public and organizations get access to legislators but that that access isn’t clandestine and it isn’t in violation of the law, which was predominantly what was going on at the time” his signature legislation was passed.
But any rewrite of the gift ban is a “briar patch,” Lee cautioned.
“It is very, very difficult to create exemptions to the gift ban that you can’t drive a truck through. And therein lies the problem,” he said. “And while a lot of people are talking about the bottle of water or the cup of coffee, I guarantee you an amendment to the gift ban that allows them to take a bottle of water and a cup of coffee will not satisfy them.”
Lee said lawmakers may be skirting the gift ban already.
“I really wanted to get through one session before I had this discussion. But I’m trying to be accommodating. Some of this has resulted in behavior being driven underground into lobbyists’ homes and into the Governor’s Club. There’s a point at which you can’t legislate morality,” he said.
Lee said he’s sympathetic to lawmakers who say they run into trouble particularly in Tallahassee when groups from home who have lobbyists hold receptions. He’s open to allowing lawmakers to attend those “highly public” events provided there is a record of attendance and “as long as the gift that’s being received by the legislator is de minimus.”