Will Draining the Swamp Work in Florida?

Kevin Glass
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Posted: Dec 17, 2016 12:01 AM
Will Draining the Swamp Work in Florida?

Incoming Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran cut his teeth on the Florida house appropriations committee, but he's got bigger aspirations than merely appropriations as he assumes his leadership position: he wants to make the Florida legislature the most transparent in the country, and he’s willing to take on his own party to do it.

Legislators around the country could learn from Corcoran’s ambitious agenda.

While Florida has a reputation for a hard-partying coastal vacation destination, its state capitol’s politics may take more cues from the notorious “good ol’ boys’ network” that other more traditionally Southern states have. Reformers have targeted Tallahassee, claiming that handouts and corporate welfare permeate the way the state government does business.

“Handing out corporate welfare checks is not something we should be engaged in,” Corcoran told the Naples Daily News earlier this year.

Fighting earmarks and corporate welfare is one way that Corcoran and other Republicans are proposing that Florida’s budget be kept under control. The state is projecting a minuscule surplus for next year but a more than $1 billion deficit in 2018, and fighting grift in Tallahassee could be a good way to make that a little more comfortable.

State Sen. Tom Lee said, “by every reasonable metric, Florida’s economy is growing. We’re just struggling to balance our spending with improved revenue streams.” Every year, Floridians spend hundreds of millions of dollars on pet earmark projects for legislators. One of the big reforms Corcoran has pushed? Requiring legislators to put their names on pet projects, rather than push them through anonymously.

Disclosure when it comes to earmarks isn’t the only kind of sunlight that the Florida legislature will see. Corcoran has supported a broad slate of reforms to lobbying in the state that put a big emphasis on disclosure. Lobbyists would be required to file what issues they’re lobbying on, would be prohibited from communicating with legislators while they’re in active sessions and committees, and require more disclosure from the legislators themselves when they’re working with lobbyists.

Not all lobbying reform is unquestionably good, but Corcoran’s focus on disclosure could make a difference - with Floridians, and as an example for other states - and for his own. The Corcoran reforms will apply to the Florida House, but not the Senate. As legislators get down to hammering out an over-$80 billion state budget, the tension between good-government reforms on the House side and the business-as-usual lawmaking on the Senate side may come to a head.

“The Florida House, in adopting these rules,” Corcoran said, “will take a transformational leap into a new era of accountability, professionalism, transparency, and fairness.” It’ll remain to be seen if Corcoran’s ambitious agenda works, but battling that good-ol’-boys’ network perception is a hugely important issue in Florida.

Kevin Glass is the Director of Policy and Outreach for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a nonprofit that publishes public-interest journalism at Watchdog.org.