Will Sansom Case Change Capitol Conduct?
With former House Speaker Ray Sansom gone, Florida lawmakers now face deciding whether the Destin Republican’s budget-dealing will spark reform in a capitol long defined by power politics.
Ten months ago, in issuing criminal charges against Sansom and Bob Richburg, president of Northwest Florida State College, a Tallahassee grand jury clearly saw a need to overhaul the Legislature’s budget process, a murky realm of political horse trading.
“The appropriation process that gives unbridled discretion to the President of the Senate, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Appropriations Chairman needs to be changed,” grand jurors wrote in a 10-page indictment released last April.
“This state should be guided in openness and transparency,” they added.
Several lawmakers now running for statewide office are clamoring for the Sansom case to serve as a spark for reform. Although open-government measures and tough-on-corruption pushes are common in election years, the efforts frequently fall short and seem aimed mostly at padding political resumes.
But some of those close to the issue say the upcoming legislative session could prove pivotal.
“We could wind up with the most amazing year of reform to Florida’s open government laws since the Sunshine Amendment” passed by voters in 1976, said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a media-supported, statewide watchdog organization. “The ideas are out there.”
Florida’s Sunshine Laws give the public access to state and local records and require that meetings be open. They also prohibit two or more public officials from meeting to discuss government business privately.
But the Legislature has exempted itself from many of the public meetings standards – along with skirting records laws by allowing “draft” legislation and informal legislative deal-making proposals and counteroffers to thrive in secrecy.
The Sansom case, though, has exposed an even tougher-to-regulate reality, perhaps best described as “them that has, gets.” As the grand jury pointed out, those in power positions can demand that dollars be tucked into the budget, with few willing to ask why.
House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands said Monday that it’s important lawmakers use the Sansom case to initiate sweeping changes to state ethics laws. “The people’s trust has been violated through abuse and corruption by elected officials and other public servants,” Sands said, calling on Republican leaders to support a brace of anti-corruption bills backed by Democrats.
Among the measures are a constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a candidate for attorney general, and Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, which is aimed at making the state budget process more transparent and open to the public.
It would require that budget bills be written in plain language, prohibit floor amendments to proposed bills in the last five days of a regular session unless approved by three-fourths of lawmakers, and give circuit courts the authority to hear challenges to open records laws and create a “reasonableness standard” making it harder for legislative leaders to declare a record closed.
“Putting it into the constitution means it’s not a temporary thing, and I think that’s important to whatever we do this spring,” Gelber said. “The changes have to last beyond the individuals now in office.”
Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, who is running for chief financial officer, is spearheading efforts aimed at putting more light on the budget. He and House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, have combined to launch a web-site, Transparency Florida, that covers expenditures, revenues, travel expenses bond information, salaries and links to other web sites.
The pair also have endorsed new rules requiring that budget offers and counter-offers between legislative leaders be made in writing, and discussed publicly in negotiating sessions.
“I wish we were at that point when I came in,” said Cretul, elected in 2002 and who rose to speaker with Sansom’s demise.
“A goal,” he added, “is that whatever is put in the budget is there and understood. Whether you agree with a member doing money for his district, that might be another story. But members are usually only measured by what they can bring home.”
The state’s Commission on Ethics has proposed a wide-ranging package of legislation that would give it authority to launch investigations of suspected wrongdoing – without the need to wait on a public complaint that generally also limits the scope of a probe.
The effort could give some real fangs to what critics have long derided as a “toothless tiger” of a commission.
Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, a candidate for governor, also is sponsoring legislation that builds on the state’s three-decade-old Sunshine Amendment by effectively declaring every record a public record that is not specifically exempt.
Dockery and Rep. Adam Fetterman, D-Port St. Lucie, also are sponsoring a measure barring House and Senate members from voting on or shaping legislation that would yield a private financial gain or help their families or relatives.
Petersen, of the First Amendment Foundation, said it’s no coincidence that statewide candidates are advancing “tough-on-corruption” and open-government legislation, ripped from the headlines of the Sansom case.
“They realize that helping Floridians gain access to their government is good politics,” Petersen said. “This year, the stars may be aligned for change.”