Lobbyists in Florida's capital are buying votes, writing bills and making their fortunes - at the cost of political integrity.
Published March 9, 2004
Florida lawmakers like to blame the ascendancy of high-powered and high-priced lobbyists on term limits, as if legislative naivete were somehow to blame. But, as St. Petersburg Times capital bureau chief Lucy Morgan reported on Sunday, those who are well-connected in Tallahassee are getting fabulously wealthy by delivering a single product: votes. The "MoneyWorld" that Morgan described is about political immorality, not uninformed innocence.
"These folks who support the political process don't make contributions, they make investments," says Tom Lee, a Republican senator from Brandon who is line to become the next Senate president. "... It scares me that we are moving down this path. Whoever has the most money, wins."
In the past decade, as Republicans have taken charge of both legislative chambers and the governor's office, the ante to sit at the big Capitol table has reached six and seven figures. The lobbying firms have become one-stop shopping for lawmakers, delivering pre-written laws, fine food and drink, entertainment and campaign contributions. Thirteen lobbyists now top the charts at more than $10-million each - $10-million in campaign contributions over the past seven years from companies they represent to the legislators whose votes they are buying. Last year, lobbyists spent nearly $8-million, or roughly $50,000 per lawmaker, simply wining and dining the Legislature. That's nearly 10 times as much as they spent in 1980.
Need a new law? The going rate these days is anywhere from $100,000 to $1-million, and some lobbyists report being paid as much as $40,000 just to deliver the vote of one legislator. The bill delaying Everglades cleanup was written by two sugar company lobbyists, and the bill raising most telephone rates was written by a telecommunications lobbyist. A team of lobbyists helped two South Florida hospitals circumvent regulatory denial of their application for open-heart surgery, and the governor signed the bill despite a plea from other hospitals that called it "a slap in the face to the entire hospital industry that has played by the rules."
Lest people believe the myth about fresh-faced legislators being outgunned by crafty lobbyists, Morgan reveals another reality about the new breed of lobbyists: Many of them have played the game for fewer innings than the politicians who are at bat.
Paul Bradshaw, for example, was just another land-use attorney until he bet on the right horse in 1998, working as issues coordinator for Jeb Bush's gubernatorial campaign and ultimately marrying the woman who would become Bush's first chief of staff. At the time, Bradshaw reported a negative net worth of $2,000. By 2002, he was one of Tallahassee's hottest lobbyists, raking in $1.4-million a year and living on a 19-acre estate in Gadsden County and buying a $1.5-million vacation home in Montana. David Rancourt, Bush's deputy chief of staff in 1999, is now a lobbying partner with Bradshaw and just finished building a 10,000-square-foot, $2-million mansion he can call home in Tallahassee.
This kind of excess is enough to make even Ralph Haben, hardly a choir boy, blush. Haben, a former House speaker who has parlayed his own political connections into a lucrative lobbying career, told Morgan: "It's more about the money than it's ever been. In the old days, I didn't know how much a lobbyist contributed. Now they (legislators) know to the penny."
Lawmakers with a shred of decency at least could share their knowledge of the pennies. Florida, and this will surprise no one, is mostly hands off when it comes to regulating the business of lobbying. Unlike some other states, lobbyists in Florida do not have to disclose their fees, itemize their expenditures or identify the lawmakers they contact or the bills they are pushing. Wisconsin, Massachusetts and South Carolina, for example, won't let lobbyists pay for anything a legislator receives. Vermont requires an itemized list of every gift valued at more than $5. New Hampshire makes lobbyists wear bright orange name tags.
In the end, the meteoric rise in the fortunes of Tallahassee lobbyists is tied to a decline in political integrity. The Constitution empowers only the 160 elected members of the House and Senate to vote, and only the governor to sign or veto legislation. So when lawmakers profess alarm at the influence of big-money lobbyists, they are only calling attention to their own complicity. The same governor who expresses unease with the extent to which people around him are cashing in on his name also continues to invite these same lobbyists into his office and appoint them to high-profile boards and commissions.
So long as lawmakers are willing to let their votes be bought, the bidding war for votes will only continue. That may be good news for luxury housing prices in Tallahassee, but it demeans democracy.