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Admission prices are through the roof. A special report on state lobbyists

A new crop of lobbyists - young, Republican and connected - are having themselves a time.

By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published March 7, 2004

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[Times photos: Michael Rondou]
lobbyist n. a person, acting for a special interest group, who tries to influence the introduction of or voting on legislation or the decisions of government administrators.

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EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRIER
How much do lobbyists spend wining, dining and influencing legislators? In 1970, the combined reported expenses of 872 lobbyists came to an average of less than $500 per legislator. Last year, 2,024 lobbyists combined to spend nearly $50,000 per legislator.
Year Total expenses reported Average total per legislator
1970 $ 76,152 $ 456
1980 $ 839,296 $ 5,245
1989 $1,224,844 $ 7,655
2000 $4,109,021 $25,681
2003 $7,916,104 $49,475
Source: Office of Legislative Services

Florida law requires interests and lobbyists to report how much they spend wining, dining and influencing legislators. For 1997-2003, here are the interests that spent the most. The second chart ranks the lobbyists who spent the most, with the interests they represent.
BY BUSINESS
BlueCross BlueShield of Florida $6,121,353
Florida Trial Lawyers $2,533,730
BellSouth $959,910
Gulf Power Co. $921,307
Floridians for Fairness (telecom PAC) $778,488
Florida Association of Realtors $529,300
FCCI insurance group $498,081
Florida Chamber of Commerce $366,107
Disney $314,395
State university system $300,829
BY LOBBYIST
Mike Hightower $5,929,181
BlueCross BlueShield of Florida
Robert M. Levy $1,883,510
Multiple clients
Thom Rumberger $1,171,025
Everglades Trust
C. Earl Henderson $921,574
Gulf Power
Ron Book $566,027
Multiple clients
Gene Adams $564,013
Florida Association of Realtors
Debra Zappi-Henley $531,435
Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers
Paul Sanford $442,855
Insurance clients
Mike Raynor $373,079
BellSouth
H. Frank Meiners $319,606
BellSouth and Cingular
Todd J. Josko $311,884
AT&T, Floridians for Fairness
Jon E. Johnson $305,426
Multiple clients
Jane Hennessey $296,885
Insurance clients
Lynn Bodiford $294,139
AARP
Marion Hammer $292,528
NRA
Susan Langston $287,589
Florida Telecommunications
Robert Hawken $271,922
FCCI insurance group
Harry T. Albertson $239,936
Florida Association of Community Colleges
Jim Tillman $202,415
Orlando Jai Alai, Florida Gaming,
Florida Hotel and Motel Association
Patrick L. Jennings $152,857
Sprint
Source: Office of Legislative Services

More Charts:
SEEDS OF VICTORY
Lawmakers passed two major pieces of legislation in last year's regular session. One delayed the cleanup of the Everglades, the other raised telephone rates for residential customers. Since 1996, sugar and telecommunications companies contributed more than $60-million to Florida candidates, the parties and advertising campaigns.
THEY DELIVER
The top 20 lobbyists by dollars their clients donated to political campaigns from 1996 through 2003. The numbers include money contributed to individuals and to the parties. Most lobbyists donate little of their own money. Two exceptions: Ronnie Book contributed $537,469, and Guy Spearman donated $458,019.
BIG $$$$ TO RUN
The cost of running for office spirals higher. Here are total amounts legislative candidates reported spending since 1990. More money flowed to the parties starting in the mid-1990s, after the state limited contributions to individuals to $500.

CREDITS FOR THIS REPORT

Times staff researchers Kitty Bennett, Deirdre Morrow, Mary Mellstrom, Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report.

Information was drawn from: Reconsiderations, by Allen Morris; the Florida Handbook, by Allen and Joan Morris; Soap Opera, by Alecia Swasy; Florida's Fighting Democrat, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, by Samuel Proctor; The Third House by Alan Rosenthal; The State of State Legislative Ethics, a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures; House and Senate journals; court and property records from Montana, Georgia, North Carolina and numerous Florida counties; the Florida Division of Elections; the Florida Ethics Commission; the Office of Legislative Services; and St. Petersburg Times files.


TALLAHASSEE - Used to be, the lobbying trade was steeped in buying politicians steak dinners and spending late evenings swapping stories, bourbon in hand.

Lawmakers still enjoy a good spread and an expensive bottle of wine, paid for by their favorite lobbyists, but term limits and the pressure to quickly raise cash for the next campaign have meant less time for camaraderie.

Today's lobbyists have found a new way to curry favor: They have become political ATMs, spitting out millions in campaign contributions from their clients - the people who want help from the lawmakers.

"It's more about the money than it's ever been," said Ralph Haben, a former House speaker who turned lobbyist in 1984. "In the old days I didn't know how much a lobbyist contributed. Now they (legislators) know to the penny. They've got computers."

Plenty of veteran lobbyists still work the halls, but a new breed - call them the young turks - has emerged as a power center in Tallahassee.

Their rise began around 1996, after Republicans won majorities in both state houses for the first time in a century.

Many of them started as grunts in GOP campaigns, chauffeuring candidates and posting political signs along roadways. They won the confidence and loyalty of the politicians now running the state.

Instead of the $25,000 to $40,000 lobbyists were getting from handfuls of clients, the turks and some old-line lobbyists command fees that top $100,000 from each of dozens of clients. Some make as much as $4-million a year.

They open political doors for their clients, who deliver eye-popping sums to lawmakers' campaign accounts.

The politicians, the lobbyists, their clients - they all make out great.

* * *

Most people have never heard of 38-year-old Jon E. Johnson, and he likes it that way.

Lawmakers know him. In the past eight years his clients have contributed $19-million to legislative campaigns.

Johnson got into politics as a teenager, volunteering for Republican campaigns. He worked for Florida Right to Life. In the early 1990s, he pushed paper at the state agency that licenses doctors and manicurists.

He started his own lobbying firm in 1992 and by the end of 1996 had 10 clients. Last year, he had 37.

Many turks share the conservative and religious beliefs of Republican leaders. Johnson hosts a Bible study group for lobbyists at his office Monday mornings. He counts past House Speaker Daniel Webster and Speaker-designate Allan Bense as friends.

Johnson's clients include Flo-Sun Sugar and Florida Cable Telecommunications. Last year, sugar and telecommunication companies hired Johnson and 146 other lobbyists. Since 1996, those interests have contributed more than $60-million to political campaigns.

The investment paid off at last year's regular legislative session, when lawmakers passed only two major bills: One delayed the cleanup of the Everglades, the other raised telephone rates for residential customers.

As often happens, lobbyists, not lawmakers, drafted the legislation. Sugar lobbyists Jorge Dominicis and Robert Coker are credited with writing the Everglades bill, BellSouth lobbyist Mike Raynor the telecommunications bill.

Johnson and others in the fleet of lobbyists worked their relationships with committee chairmen and legislative leaders to lock in their support.

"If they know that I might be close to one person, they'd root me out and hire me just to lobby one guy, probably paying me $40,000," said Mallory Horne, a Democrat who served as House speaker and Senate president in the 1960s and '70s. "It's almost man-to-man now."

John French, who has worked these halls 30 years, explained:

"You are building increments of votes instead of persuading a mass, and much is based on how much (money) you raised and how big a friend you are.

"People who couldn't have lobbied the Lord's Prayer make it now because they are perceived to be close to the speaker or some other leader."

* * *

Away from the glare of attention of the major battles, lobbyists go about their work. Consider this little-publicized case.

Twelve years ago, hospitals in southeast Florida, including Martin Memorial in Stuart and Boca Raton Community in Palm Beach County, asked the state for permission to perform open-heart surgery at their facilities.

The procedure is so lucrative it can add as much as $25-million a year to a hospital's bottom line. But a hospital cannot unilaterally get into the open-heart business; it must convince state regulators there is an unmet demand.

The two hospitals kept asking, but regulators kept saying no. They agreed with competing hospitals - represented by the Florida Hospital Association - that said they were meeting demand. Both sides traded lawsuits.

After 10 years getting nowhere, Martin Memorial joined forces with Boca Raton Community in 2002 and hired Brian Ballard.

The 42-year-old epitomizes the new breed of lobbyist.

In 1986, he left law school in Gainesville to carry luggage for Bob Martinez's gubernatorial campaign. He rose to chief of staff in the Martinez administration. In 1990, after Lawton Chiles beat Martinez, Ballard began practicing law and married Katherine Smith, daughter of former Attorney General and Secretary of State Jim Smith.

Ballard says he didn't look to become a lobbyist, the profession found him. Everyone assumed he knew the right people to get things done.

"By default, I became a lobbyist. It was sort of a transformation, like the Body Snatchers. Suddenly I was a lobbyist and not practicing much law."

He had six clients when Republicans took control of the Legislature; he had 77 at the end of 2003, the most in Tallahassee. Ballard's client roster includes GTECH, Honda, the Tampa Bay Lightning, AT&T and Florida Power & Light. Since 1996, his clients have contributed almost $10-million to state campaigns.

Adding to his clout: his lobbying partner is his father-in-law; the firm is Smith & Ballard.

Ballard lives in a $700,000 home in Moore Pond, a gated community north of Tallahassee. He owns a 2003 Hummer (his wife's), a Ford Explorer, Chevy truck and Mercedes sedan. He owns a $600,000 historic house/office building downtown and a beachfront condo in Walton County in the Panhandle. Near the condo, in an exclusive community called the Retreat, he is building a vacation home on a $1-million lot.

* * *

Ballard assembled a team to lobby on behalf of Martin Memorial and Boca Raton Community hospitals. Key players included 44-year-old Gene McGee, who was Senate President Jim King's staff director in the House in the '90s, and 36-year-old Michael Corcoran, a former aide to House Speaker Johnnie Byrd. Corcoran is a fundraiser on the side, raising by his estimate as much as $700,000 a year for GOP candidates.

Ballard picked the rest of the lobbying team for their demographics.

"When it's an issue that is this big, you are up against 50 to 70 lobbyists for the (Florida) Hospital Association and the other hospitals," Ballard said. "So I had to see who was best with the Senate president, the speaker, the Cuban caucus, the black caucus, and try and build a team around that."

Ballard's team drafted a bill to help their hospital clients. It was not a special law for just the two hospitals; that would be unconstitutional. Their bill exempted hospitals in five counties from the regulatory process.

Lawmakers from those counties - Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Polk - sponsored the bills in the 2003 legislative session. Among them was Ken Pruitt of Port St. Lucie, the influential chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

He said local communities, not the state, should determine if their areas need more hospitals to perform open-heart surgery.

"When you put someone in an ambulance and take them more than an hour away at a precarious moment, it would be hard not to say lives weren't lost," Pruitt said. "All I know is I have a hospital in dire straits. We needed to enhance the quality of life for these people."

Opposing lobbyists countered that changing the law would mean letting a few hospitals play by different rules.

The Senate passed the bill, 33-6, before the session was half over. But Ballard's team had trouble in the House.

Speaker Byrd had pledged his support, but he was holding the bill as leverage over Pruitt - one of the handful of Republican senators standing with Democrats against Byrd and Gov. Jeb Bush, on capping damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.

Week after week, the speaker refused to let the hospital legislation come to a vote. As often happens, the fight came down to the last day of the session.

Corcoran - Ballard's lobbying teammate and Byrd confidant - camped out in the speaker's office. If anybody could convince the cantankerous Byrd, it was his former aide. Ballard paced in and out of Byrd's office and worked his cell phone.

Said Ballard:

"We reminded (Byrd) of his commitment and said the district shouldn't have to suffer because there was a turf war between two politicians. He wanted to make us sweat."

Sweat they did, until the final hour. At 5:18 p.m., with hundreds of other bills waiting to be considered, Byrd called the hospital bill. It passed, 72-38.

Ballard, Corcoran and McGee spilled from the House gallery into a back hallway, laughing and high-fiving. They made their way downstairs to the teeming lobby and swaggered toward Sen. Pruitt.

"We did it, we did it," Ballard crowed as they hugged the senator. Ballard pointed at Corcoran. "He did it."

They still weren't done.

* * *

Two of the governor's advisers, budget director Donna Arduin and health care expert Alan Levine, recommended that Bush veto the bill. You can't change the rules for just certain hospitals, they said.

Ballard had an ace in the hole: Bush's chief policy adviser, Greg Turbeville, a strong advocate of less government regulation.

Ballard arranged an audience with the governor for his hospital managers. Bush often hears from those who stand to lose if he vetoes a bill. Also attending were Turbeville and Levine.

After the meeting, Levine put his vehement objections to Ballard's bill in a memo, dated July 3, 2003:

"I think signing this bill would be a slap in the face to the entire hospital industry that has played by the rules, rules that perhaps no one likes, but nevertheless, the same rules that applied to everyone. I think it is patently unfair."

Bush signed the bill July 14, along with others that exempt from regulation hospitals in Jacksonville and Lake County. The governor said regulation had produced only lawsuits, not better health care for Floridians.

"It took everybody pushing as hard as we could push," Ballard said. "It was very tough to pass. We raised the money to put together a team to fight the Hospital Association."

Two months after Bush signed the hospital bill, Turbeville left the governor's office to join the lobbying corps - at Smith & Ballard.

"I hired Greg - not because of this - he opposed me on about four other issues," Ballard said. "Greg knows more legislative staff people than anybody in our firm. That was a weakness in our practice."

There is still money to be made in the fight over this bill.

In October, a Leon County circuit judge ruled the law unconstitutional. He said lawmakers were required to do more to advertise that the state was considering the change.

Lawyers for Ballard's hospital clients appealed. In case they lose in court, the lobbyists and lawyers wrote a new bill.

Sen. Pruitt filed it Dec. 19; it's in the Appropriations Committee he chairs. The House passed the companion bill Thursday. So far, the hospitals have invested some $450,000 in lobbying fees.

* * *

In 2002, the average state Senate candidate spent $350,000 to run - twice what it cost a decade ago. And that doesn't count millions more the two political parties spent on their candidates.

As the demand for campaign cash rises, so does the clout of the lobbyist with wealthy clients.

"It gives them (lobbyists) leverage and it also gives them a great deal of appreciation," said Senate President Jim King.

"You can't serve and run a campaign without money. The choice is to spend your own, or rely on other people to go out and help, and in that regard the lobbyist who can control a lot of PACs usually stands in good favor."

John Culbreath, a lobbyist for Gulfstream Park horse track near Miami, served in the House in the '60s and '70s. "Campaigns don't stop," he said. "They open campaign accounts the day after an election is over. We never started raising money until after the session in a campaign year.

"The last campaign I ran in I spent $34,000, and I thought that was ridiculous. Now it would just be startup money."

Many blame term limits, which voters passed in 1992 to foster turnover. They say turnover breeds novice lawmakers, more dependent on lobbyists expert in legislative tricks of the trade and adroit at raising fast campaign cash.

When Horne was in the Legislature, he said, it was a big deal if someone contributed $100. "Now you are talking about $350,000 for the average Senate race? Where does an average person expect to get that? And if he gets it, how obligated is he by personal unction and direct obligation? That is just too much, and I don't know how in the hell they will solve it."

* * *

In his State of the State speech, April 2, 1907, Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward called the lobbyist and the grafting lawmaker "the two most insidious and dangerous elements entering into the work of the Legislature."

Broward said the state need to guard Floridians against those who would "debauch and corrupt the Legislature by methods which will not bear the light of publicity."

Lawmakers responded by requiring lobbyists to identify their clients; they required nothing of themselves.

A century later, what accountability does Florida require?

Lobbyists must register their clients and twice a year file reports summarizing amounts spent on lawmakers.

Here's what's not required:

Lobbyists do not have to itemize expenditures.

Lobbyists do not have to disclose their fees.

Lobbyists do not have to list the bills they support or oppose.

Lobbyists do not have to identify the lawmakers they contact or entertain.

Legislators do not have to disclose contacts with lobbyists.

Legislators do not have to itemize their free dinners or report gifts worth less than $25.

Congress and some states require lobbyists to disclose their fees and identify precisely how they spend their money. Some states require lobbyists to identify the legislators they wine and dine and the campaigns they contribute to. Some states prohibit lobbyists from making campaign contributions at all.

Wisconsin, Massachusetts and South Carolina won't let lobbyists pay for even a cup of coffee. Vermont wants an itemized list of every gift valued at more than $5. Iowa prohibits gifts valued at more than $3.

New Hampshire wants everybody alerted whenever a lobbyist comes near: They have to wear bright orange name tags.

* * *

The bill Sen. Richard Mitchell filed in 1999 would have required lobbyists to report which legislators they asked to sponsor bills and to itemize their campaign contributions.

The bill just quietly went away. It didn't get a hearing in a single committee.

Will this year be different?

King, the Senate president, said it would be "micromanagement" to require lobbyists to report their fees.

Byrd, the House speaker, said lobbyists have too much influence, but he said if lobbyists were banned from raising money, that probably would spawn a group of professional fundraisers.

Though House and Senate rules forbid fundraising during legislative sessions, Byrd is raising money for his U.S. Senate campaign. House and Senate lawyers approve; they say the rules don't apply to candidates for federal office.

Gov. Bush said lobbyists serve a useful purpose, but he knows the public presumes a link between legislation and wining, dining and campaign money. He said he would support requiring lobbyists to report their fees and itemize how they spend money on lawmakers.

"It's a problem that could be cured with more transparency," Bush said. "This is public money, directly or indirectly. The greater the transparency, the better."

The governor has asked lawmakers to approve a bill that would require them to report every contribution received and how they spend the money; it would outlaw committees that raise and spend money without reporting the source.

Sponsors of the bill are House Speaker-designee Allen Bense and Senate President-designee Tom Lee.

Bense said he wants the House to examine ways to better regulate lobbyists, but with the session already started, he doesn't expect results this year.

Lee came to Tallahassee like many freshmen, primed to fight the good fight. Eight years has taught the senator from Brandon that right and wrong don't drive the process so much as the lobbyists that deliver campaign money.

"These folks who support the political process don't make contributions," he said, "they make investments.

"I couldn't be more interested in trying to help the public connect the dots between the money that flows into this process, whether it's campaign or entertainment, and the outcome produced."

The alternative, he said, is unacceptable. "It scares me that we are moving down this path. Whoever has the most money, wins."

Credits, sources

Times staff researchers Kitty Bennett, Deirdre Morrow, Mary Mellstrom, Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Information was drawn from:

Reconsiderations, by Allen Morris; the Florida Handbook, by Allen and Joan Morris; Soap Opera, by Alecia Swasy; Florida's Fighting Democrat, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, by Samuel Proctor; The Third House by Alan Rosenthal; The State of State Legislative Ethics, a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures; House and Senate journals; court and property records from Montana, Georgia, North Carolina and numerous Florida counties; the Florida Division of Elections; The Florida Ethics Commission; the Office of Legislative Services; St. Petersburg Times files.

[Last modified March 7, 2004, 01:35:55]


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