Each year, as many as 800 elected officials ignore a law that requires they submit a form detailing their financial interests, according to the state Ethics Commission, but there's not much the panel can do about it.
An automatic fine of as much as $1,500 is issued, but the commission has written off $1 million in fines over the past decade because, it says, they're essentially uncollectable.
That would change under a wide-ranging bill the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee began crafting Tuesday as a top priority for Senate President Don Gaetz. The measure also would seek to keep politicians from routinely having meals and drinks paid for through political committees and would add tighter restrictions on government jobs that politicians can take while in office and lobbying jobs they can take once they leave.
The committee agreed with the commission's top priority of allowing liens on real property when officials violate the law and refuse to pay fines. The committee also will seek to expand the statute of limitations on the law to 20 years from four and create the ability to garnish wages if officials fail to pay fines.
About 37,000 state, county and municipal officials are required to disclose their finances, and every year about 1 to 2 percent ignore the law, according to Ethics Commissioner Matthew Carlucci. Even with a high compliance rate, he said, the fines on those who don't add up.
Chairman Susan Maurer said the commission looks foolish when the fines it writes off are reported in the news.
"There are a number of employees across this state who from time to time appear not to take this process very seriously — zoning officials, water management officials — and we would just ask you to help the commission and the state of Florida look like this is a serious responsibility," Maurer told the Senate committee Tuesday.
The committee, though, wants to build in provisions to help officials who inadvertently make mistakes on the disclosures, such as giving them a grace period to fix errors before a complaint is filed.
Sen. Tom Lee told the commissioners he would like to see some way of dismissing minor or frivolous ethics complaints that are filed for political reasons. It's common for a complaint to be filed during an election to generate news against an opponent, he said, and the election is often over before the complaint is dismissed.
"A lot of times you all get exploited for political purposes, and I know you see through that and witness it all the time," said Lee, R-Brandon. "We can do away with a lot of the mischief that I see in the campaigns by unscrupulous people who try to get a headline at the expense of somebody else."
Carlucci said an opposite problem also occurs: elected officials seeking to postpone a legitimate complaint until after an election.
The Senate committee also will try to find a way to keep lawmakers from using political committees to pay for dining and entertainment that has nothing to do with the committees' stated objectives. Lawmakers are banned from taking gifts from lobbyists, but they can set up political committees and through them take thousands of dollars in donations from the same lobbyists who can't buy them a cup of coffee. Senators acknowledged that the committees are abused by some lawmakers who use the accounts to buy dinners and drinks nightly.
The difficult part will be writing language to distinguish the difference between legitimate entertainment and travel expenses and paying for personal meals and items.
"You better show what check you got when you have the dinner," said Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the committee.
The bill also will seek to add a bigger buffer between the time lawmakers can leave office and take lobbying jobs. It also will include language to prevent lawmakers from taking high-paying government jobs while in office, with exemptions for people who held government jobs when elected and for work in classrooms.
Also, lawmakers would be prevented from voting on bills in which they have a financial stake instead of just being required to disclose the conflict of interest.
The bill will be written in time for a committee vote next week. Latvala hopes to have it ready for a full Senate vote during the first week of the legislative session that begins March 5.