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FL Lawmakers Push Bills Tied To Their Private Jobs

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

During the recently-concluded legislative session, Senate President Andy Gardiner constantly warned about the threat to the state's hospitals if they were to lose more than $1 billion that now comes from the federal government.

There's a good reason Gardiner understands hospitals: he works for one.

Gardiner's employment is legal, but it highlights a common practice in the Florida Legislature. Many legislators have places where their professional lives and legislative work overlap. The Florida Legislature is a "part-time" job that pays slightly less than $30,000 and most legislators have outside jobs that allow them to spend two months a year at the state Capitol.

The 46-year-old Gardiner is a vice president with Orlando Health, a network of private, nonprofit hospitals that receives state funding. Gardiner's pay is almost $200,000 annually and it includes incentives tied to hospital performance, including how well it does financially.

During this year's session, Gardiner has cited the potential loss of federal money as the rationale to move ahead with a Medicaid expansion plan that would draw federal money linked to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. The senators have so far stood fast against their Republican colleagues in the House, leading to the budget stalemate that was not resolved by Friday's scheduled end of session.

As the stalemate has dragged on, there's been a whisper campaign suggesting Gardiner's motives are due to his employer, and not out of concern for the hospitals dependent on the federal money known as "low income pool."

Gardiner brushes aside the criticism.

"I think it's almost more irresponsible if I say 'I see that problem over there but I 'm not going to touch it because I work in health care,'" Gardiner said.

Other Florida legislators whose professional and political careers have collided include:

— Republican Sen. John Legg, who works at a Pasco County charter school, has the lead role in shaping education laws including those that deal with charter schools. Charter schools are privately run but receive public money.

—Rep. Eric Fresen, a Miami Republican, sponsored a measure this year that could result in millions of local school district taxes being shifted to charter schools. Fresen works for an architectural and design firm that gets contracts to build charter schools. His sister is married to the head of one of the state's leading charter school management companies.

—Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat, is deeply involved in education legislation. Montford's day job? He earns nearly $200,000 a year from the association that represents school superintendents. During one committee meeting this session, Montford intervened to make sure a school superintendent could testify.

—Rep. Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, was hired in mid-February as an economic development consultant by the city of Ocoee. Emails obtained by The Associated Press show that on March 13 Bracy's office submitted requests to obtain state money for the city, including a request for more than $800,000 to pay for a sidewalk trail.

The forms show that the name included as a contact for the project was the assistant city manager for Ocoee who recommended hiring Bracy.

When asked about it, Bracy said that he had put in budget requests for all the cities in his legislative district. He noted he had not started his new job yet. Bracy added that he has asked the House general counsel for an opinion about any conflict between his city contract and his legislative post.

"If they tell me that from now on I can't, I won't do it anymore," Bracy said.

The rules guiding conflict of interests for legislators aren't strict. They are allowed to vote on nearly all measures, with the exception of those that provide a special benefit to them directly. They can still vote on measures that benefit their employer, provided that they disclose it.

Florida's ethics laws are loose enough that legislators rarely get in trouble over them. Former House Speaker Ray Sansom was charged in 2009 over a budget item he pushed that appeared to benefit a GOP donor in his district. But the charges were later dropped after a judge would not allow a key witness to testify.

The Florida Commission on Ethics concluded earlier this year that Rep. Marlene O'Toole, a Sumter County Republican, violated the law because she did not disclose within 15 days that she voted on bills that steered millions to her employer, Take Stock in Children. O'Toole maintained it was an unintentional oversight and that she did not read the previous instruction of House lawyers who advised her to disclose her conflict.

Her punishment? Nothing.

Rep. Ritch Workman, the Melbourne Republican in charge of the House Rules, Calendar and Ethics Committee, in March concluded that O'Toole corrected the problem when she eventually disclosed her conflict nearly four months after the votes — and after they had been publicized.

"Your actions constitute an appropriate correction and final resolution on this matter," Workman wrote.