Gift ban exemption proposal expanded to allow GoFundMe solicitations

Money jar with donations label.
There are still concerns about potential ethics implications.

The question of whether Florida’s state workers battling cancer or other major health crises should be allowed to accept helpful gifts from lobbyists and others was expanded Thursday to also consider whether those workers should be allowed to solicit such gifts, as they might through crowd-funding programs like GoFundMe.

The House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee amended and then unanimously approved HB 1435 Thursday to ease prohibitions against state employees who are going through major health crises so that they might ask for and receive gifts of help, including money, including from state lobbyists and vendors.

Specifically, the bill would apply to a state employee or non-elected official, or their child, who has suffered serious bodily injury or has been diagnosed with a serious disease or illness.

Committee members unanimously praised Rep. Jayer Williamson‘s bill Wednesday as a great humanitarian effort to give state employees the same options for critical help that all other Floridians might receive.

The Senate companion, Senate Budget Chief Rob Bradley’s SB 1490, cleared a committee earlier this week.

Yet significant concerns were raised in the House committee hearing, notably by Democratic Rep. Margaret Good of Sarasota and by Florida Commission on Ethics Executive Director Chris Anderson. They and others raised the question of desperate state employees begging lobbyists for help, and of the prospect that the officials could be not just run of the mill bureaucrats trying to get by, but very powerful appointed officials who direct state business that could benefit those contributing to their cause.

The committee adopted an amendment to allow state workers to solicit help, including from lobbyists and state vendors. GoFundMe.com was offered as a prime example of such solicitations, which might currently be a violation of the state’s gift ban. Beyond that, Anderson said he has concerns about solicitations to state contractors and lobbyists.

But the humanitarian nature of the bill does not eliminate potential unintended consequences, Anderson contended.

“There are a number of us up here who find this solution to be a little problematic,” Good said.

Republican Rep. Jennifer Sullivan of Eustis lashed back, calling some of the concerns deeply offensive, in view of what was on the table: extending help to state employees who might be battling cancer, or who might have children doing so.

Williamson tried to get the committee to think in terms of simpler help that can be desperately needed in such times, such as someone offering to do chores for the state employee, or providing home-cooked meals.

“I just want to make it clear on a number of counts. First: 66 percent of all bankruptcies are due to medical expenses. This is a widespread problem that crosses from the public and private sectors,” said Alexis Lambert, an attorney working for the Florida Lottery and previously for the Constitutional Revision Commission, who suffered Stage 3 colon cancer. “Secondly, the only thing I am begging for is your support for this common-sense solution to this real problem affecting real people in state and local government.”

Good’s primary concern was that the bill opened a last-ditch safety net for state employees who cannot afford to get cancer or some other major health problem, when the Florida Legislature should be taking a closer look at why they can’t afford it in the first place and trying to shore up insurance packages and other benefits provided to state workers.

Good, who said she was in favor of the bill and voted yes on both the bill and the amendment, also opened the debate further by arguing Florida lets millions of other Floridians down by not addressing health care affordability, particularly by not expanding Medicaid.

“We think: ‘Let’s provide a solution so that Miss Lambert or others like her could create a GoFundMe account that lobbyists could then give to.’ These potentially could be the same lobbyists who are working for pharmaceutical companies, health care companies, that are making it harder for us to get insurance, and making it harder for everyday Floridians to get access to health care,” Good said. “We should be looking for solutions as a legislative body in addition to doing this. … I cannot sit here in good conscience and feel like we are not doing our job when we have a state employee testifying that you can literally not afford to get cancer if you are not a state employee.”

Sullivan gave an emotional retort.

“I am absolutely mortified as someone on this committee by some of the things that have been said today in testimony, and the fact that we’re now trying to hijack this bill to talk about Medicaid expansion. I think it is incredibly insensitive to Miss Lambert,” Sullivan said. “You can have incredible health care coverage, and the state does, and you and your family can still undergo a lot.

“This bill is very narrowly tailored to someone who has suffered serious bodily injury … who has been diagnosed with a serious disease. I don’t think someone who finds themselves in his situation is going to try to be so opportunistic to be quote-unquote begging from lobbyists,” Sullivan said.

Williamson concurred.

“This bill will allow a public employee to do what many private employees would do in a time of need,” he said.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]



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