Education ban kills Thrasher's ethics bill

Feb 14, 2012

A Florida Senate Committee tackled a bill Tuesday to prohibit lawmakers from working for a state college or university.  Tom Flanigan reports the bill failed after much impassioned discussion

The bill was proposed by Jacksonville Republican John Thrasher.  It would set up rules for public officials to use blind trusts in the event their business or other activities might present a conflict of interest.  Thrasher’s bill would tighten financial reporting requirements.  And it would do one other thing…

“The bill also provides that…prohibits a member of the legislature from working for or contracting with a state university or Florida college system institution while in office for two years after leaving the legislature or members serving in the legislature who are employed by state university or college on July first, 2012 would be exempt until they seek re-election.”

Senator Thrasher said the rationale behind his bill was pretty straightforward:

“What we’re trying to do is avoid the potential or perceived conflict of members serving in the legislature and working at the same time for a college (or) university.”
Daytona Beach Republican Senator Evelyn Lynn wondered why single out that particular job category for lawmakers?
“Basically, it takes away all the expertise of anybody in the legislature who would have knowledge of the operating and the process when you deal with universities and colleges.”
To which Thrasher replied there had been a few occasions in the past when academia and legislative politics did not mix well…

“Serving in the legislature and voting on an appropriations bill for instance as an example, that’s a potential conflict and I think that’s where most of the perception of the public and others who have come to me (and) said that’s where they think the most concerns are.”

Lynn shot back that lawmakers have many other professions, doctors for instance, whose situation may be affected  on what they and their legislative colleagues decide.  That opened the floodgates for more committee question and comment, including Orlando Democrat Gary Siplin…

“Have there been any record of crimes of people when working for the school system or the universities who are convicted of doing something wrong as to why we’re doing this bill?”

Orlando Republican Andy Gardiner incorporated a nearby member of the Capital Press Corps into his remarks…

“Maybe today it’s colleges or universities, but what if the next story…you know, we’ve got Detective Columbo here on the front row taking notes.  I mean, what if that’s the next area that we go after?  And then we’re back here saying we’ve got to ban this?  I just struggle saying because you work at this particular location, guess what?  Now you can’t run for the legislature.”

If Thrasher’s bill had been in effect back in 1988, Jacksonville Republican Stephen Wise would probably not be in the legislature today.  He was a community college administrator when he was first elected.  And he sought legal counsel about the conflict of interest issue way back then…

“If I am voting on the appropriations bill, which has the education package in it, is it a conflict of interest to me?  Because I’m getting a pay raise or whatever it is that they have in there for college staff.  Would that be a conflict of interest?  And they said no because it was a general kind of thing and I didn’t appropriate specifically for me.”

Speaking before the committee, military veteran Thomas Dickens.  He’s an adjunct biology instructor at Tallahassee Community College.

“While I was in Iraq, I was determined that I would come back and help the citizens of Florida out as much as I possibly could.  The way I’m going to do that is I’m going to run for the house.  This bill that’s before y’all this morning is going to prevent me from helping the citizens of Florida out.”

Dickens may yet get his chance to run and serve.  By the barest of margins, Thrasher’s bill failed to clear the committee.  Afterward, he said he simply wanted to get a discussion going about how to limit the potential for corruption among lawmakers.