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Politics

Ban on University Employees as Legislators Squeaks through First Committee

January 22, 2012 - 6:00pm

Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, said his ethics bill to prohibit employees of a state college or university from serving in the Legislature is designed in part to eliminate a huge public perception problem.

However, as the bill, SB 1560, narrowly got the support of members of the Rules Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections on Monday, several senators argued for the need to have more diverse backgrounds when deliberating on laws and budget impacts.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said she supported the bill in theory to eliminate the perception of conflict of interest, but called SB 1560 flawed as the effort would remove needed expert knowledge from the Legislature.

What makes you an expert in the field would also prohibit you from serving in the Legislature, Detert said. Wed have to remove (Senator) Garrett Richter (R-Naples) as chair of banking because he owns a bank. How far do you want to go with this?

Thrasher said the bill would only target those who work in state jobs, adding that Richter wouldnt be affected because he isnt voting on money that would impact his financial institute.

There is a huge perception problem for us when members of the Legislature who are employed by colleges and universities are sitting on appropriations committees or on final passage of the appropriations bill (and) voting on those things that reflect upon the university or college they are employed by.

The bill has two additional stops, Higher Education and Rules.

Thrasher said hes open to expanding the bill if anyone has suggestions.

The bill would also prohibit legislators from taking a job with a state university or college within two years of leaving office.

Members of the Legislature are already prohibited from lobbying the Legislature for two years after leaving office.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said the Senate already has rules in place that require senators to announce and recuse themselves when issues arise with a potential conflict of interest.

We know when we can vote and we cant vote, Sobel said.

Thrasher, who knows there is no companion effort in the House, which isnt expected to take up the bill, said the proposal is designed to start the conversation.

The bill was introduced following several years of media highlights of legislators and their state university and college jobs.

The most notable was former Rep. Ray Sansom, a Republican from Destin, who was hired by Northwest Florida State College after directing millions in the state budget for the school.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is littered with university educators, from Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who is an instructor at the University of Florida, to Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne, a professor at Valencia Community College, and Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, at Tallahassee Community College.

Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 215-9889.

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