Lobbyists paid $212 million last year to lobby Florida government [Orlando Sentinel]
(Orlando Sentinel (FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 16--TALLAHASSEE -- Telecom companies, Malaysian casino-builder Genting, sugar concerns, and an Internet sweepstakes cafe company led the crop of corporations and interests that poured $212 million into lobbying Florida government last year, new reports show.
The total includes $123 million paid to lobby the Florida Legislature and another $88.5 million paid by companies seeking influence with Gov. Rick Scott's office and the state's two-dozen agencies.
But those totals are down slightly from last year, when clients paid $127 million to influence the Legislature and another $89.1 million to lobby the executive branch. However, all the amounts are estimates because lobbyists are required to report most of their pay in $10,000 ranges.
The income reports offer a keyhole into the world of political influence, though most legislators insist the money "buys nothing," as Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, put it.
"My decisions are based on my values and principles," said Gardner, slated to be Senate president in 2014.
But many of the biggest spenders get favorable results.
Phone giant AT&T set the pace, paying $1.8 million to 28 lobbyists last year as the company pushed to lower its communications services taxes. AT&T, Verizon Communications, and other big telecoms won tax changes that could ultimately save them anywhere from $35 million to $300 million a year.
This spring, legislation is moving through the Senate to cut the tax again, and also ban texting while driving, another issue the company is pushing.
A raft of other often-competing interests, from optometrists to Internet cafes, U.S. Sugar and even local governments also spent big. And many of them hired GOP super-lobbyist Brian Ballard, who says his clients are buying insider access to power and decision-making. His Ballard Partners firm was the top grosser at $10.7 million in total fees.
"I tell people, if all you want is the cheapest firm, there are other options," Ballard said.
Florida lobbyists have been required to disclose their pay ranges since 2005. And Sen. Tom Lee, the Brandon Republican who was Senate president when the requirement was passed, said the amount of money was eye-opening.
"I realized right away I was in the wrong business," said Lee, a homebuilder who returned to the Legislature last year despite the efforts of some lobbyists who campaigned against him.
"Tallahassee's sort of an incubator for hubris, and some of these people think it's their town [and] their government and legislators are just passing through," Lee said. "But truth is, we're all just passing through."
Many of the companies paying the most are also just passing through.
Two years ago, Automated Health Care Solutions, a South Florida company that sells pill-dispensing software to workers' compensation doctors, was the big new spender -- through Ballard's firm.
In 2012, Oklahoma-based International Internet Technologies was a new entrant to the lobbying big leagues, hiring Ballard's firm. It spent $1.2 million on lobbyists -- and bills cracking down on the so-called "sweepstakes" cafes, which provide gaming-like video games many counties have attempted to ban, stalled.
Genting paid $1.7 million to lobbyists last year, ranking No.1 in payments ($770,000) for executive-branch lobbying. Though the company's push to develop a destination casino at the site of the Miami Herald building went nowhere, the company continues courting legislative allies.
"Nothing is going to happen this year, but they're still playing a role," Ballard said. "You can't just pick and choose [ a year to lobby] if you're going to be a player in the Capitol over the long haul."
The nexus between the Capitol halls and lobbying suites is drawing another push for ethics reforms this year. The Senate is advancing a bill (SB 2) that would, among other changes, ban ex-lawmakers from lobbying either the legislative or executive branches for two years.
For instance, former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, was laying the groundwork to launch his own lobbying firm before he officially left office last fall.
Cannon is prohibited under current law from lobbying the Legislature for two years, but is immediately free to lobby the governor and executive agencies. So his new firm, Capitol Insight, has hired others to lobby the Legislature, like former Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, who left office two years ago.
In another example, Ballard's firm hired former Seminole County Rep. Chris Dorworth days after he lost his general election to Democrat Mike Clelland of Lake Mary.
Clelland, a lawyer and retired firefighter, said he's found the lobbying corps "overwhelming," and he stays in a hotel miles away from the downtown Capitol to avoid "the extra-curricular activities" at night.
"I have to admit it's been an enlightening process, so far as lobbyists are concerned," Clelland said. "They are everywhere."
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