Lawmakers ban gifts from lobbyists

Florida's legislators enact one of the nation's strictest laws; a critic says it has a loophole "big enough to drive a Mack truck through."

Published December 9, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Florida lawmakers, some of them reluctantly, approved Thursday a ban on gifts from lobbyists, agreeing to end the flow of food and drink that has lubricated dealmaking in Tallahassee for decades.

On the last day of a special session called to overhaul Medicaid and set rules for slot machines, legislators enacted one of the strictest gift laws in the country. Only days ago, the gift ban idea by House Speaker Allan Bense seemed so unlikely to pass some wondered if he proposed it as a ruse to sink a Senate plan aimed at requiring lobbyists to report their income from individual clients.

That passed, too.

Against a backdrop of lobbyist-related scandals in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., and on the eve of an election year, state lawmakers simply found the idea too difficult to oppose. Just nine members, all Democrats, some of whom thought it wasn't tough enough, voted against the measure. All members of Tampa Bay's legislative delegation supported the bill.

"I know there was a lot of talk (against this bill)," said Senate President Tom Lee, who had pushed for the lobbyist disclosure provision. "But at the end of the day I think they recognized that they would look pretty silly if they didn't support this legislation."

Passage surprised some ethics reform advocates, who had all but given up hope on any meaningful change in the cozy relationship between lobbyists and public officials.

"I think it's pretty significant and it's going to change the culture of the capital to a pretty high degree," said Ben Wilcox, director of Common Cause Florida. At restaurants and taverns, "People will be looking to see who pulls out their wallet," Wilcox said.

But the bill, which Gov. Jeb Bush said he would sign, still contains a gaping loophole, "one big enough to drive a Mack truck through," said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach.

Observers speculated it would be only a matter of time before lawmakers and lobbyists learned to use the growing number of soft-money fundraising committees, and the practice of moving money through political parties, to allow lobbyists to continue currying favor with lawmakers.

For example, a lawmaker dining with a lobbyist could pick up the dinner tab but then accept a check to one of the lawmaker's fundraising accounts that can accept unlimited donations. The lawmaker could then reimburse himself.

"It's such a farce," said Keith Arnold, a former Democratic lawmaker from Fort Myers who lobbies for a hospice group and local governments. "This is window-dressing at its best. It's pandering to the press and public."

For clients without much money to donate to parties, Arnold said, the only way to get any access to powerful lawmakers is by hosting a small reception or dinner. As of New Year's Day, that will be illegal.

"You're making criminals out of everyday people who just want access to their legislator," Arnold said.

Indeed, personal meals and gifts from lobbyists represent just a fraction of the relationship they have with lawmakers.

One lobbyist who listened to the debate Thursday returned to his office to find fresh fund-raising invitations from two legislators.

But Bush, Lee and Bense said they are convinced Thursday's vote was significant. They said an existing law that prohibits a lobbyist from "earmarking" or hand-picking who would benefit from donations to a political party addresses some concerns of critics.

"We have passed the most sweeping legislation in connection with the internal organization of this body in decades," Bense said from the podium.

The 2,000-plus registered lobbyists in Tallahassee reported spending about $3.5-million to entertain lawmakers last year, or about $21,000 per legislator.

Thursday's vote came only after floor debate in both chambers that focused almost solely on how lawmakers could eat. They receive a per diem while in Tallahassee for living expenses that can vary, but the typical legislator gets about $21 for food.

"This particular bill, I think it keeps us from being senators," said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, who cast one of the three dissenting votes in the 36-3 Senate vote. "If I'm going to a meeting, you have essentially told me I need to brown bag my lunch or dinner. This treats legislators worse than the general public."

Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, who eventually voted for the measure, even suggested the move would result in "greasy bags" littering the Capitol because legislators would be forced to feed themselves. Over two and half-hours of debate, bill sponsor Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, eventually came up with a retort: "Don't eat or Dutch treat."

Other lawmakers said the change is overdue.

"I know legislators who sometimes have not spent a penny in a week, they have a breakfast, lunch and dinner paid for by someone else," said Sen. Gwen Marjolis, D-Miami, a former Senate president. "That's not right. . . . What is the big deal about paying your own way?"

Even as the measure passed, however, there was confusion between chambers over what the gift ban covered. House members were told, for example, that they could eat at public events if they are a speaker or acting in their duties as a legislator, even if an entity with a lobbyist before the Legislature picks up the tab. But Geller and other Senate members were told it was prohibited unless they paid for the meal.

And lawmakers in both chambers raised questions about how the law would apply to those members who have law partners who are lobbyists.

Other lawmakers raised concerns that the gift ban would bar them from accepting token gifts, such as a plaque of appreciation from a state university or artwork from schoolchildren.

"Any law I've been involved with here has always been worth improving later on," Senate Majority Leader J. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, told members.

Thursday's bill does contain one exemption: Lobbyists can buy and legislators can accept flowers and other "celebratory items" displayed in Senate and House chambers on the opening day of the annual regular session, which starts in March.

"Any ethics reform is less a revolution than an evolution," Lee said. "Today was the first step."

Legislation regulates in-kind contributions

The Florida Legislature approved a bill Thursday that was drafted in response to the controversial Magna Entertainment Corp. trip.

In July, four state lawmakers traveled to Canada aboard a private jet chartered by Magna, a gambling giant that was seeking state approval for slot machines in South Florida. The $48,000 cost of the trip appeared as an in-kind contribution to the state Republican Party for a fundraising trip. But the lawmakers later said no fundraising was done and they returned home with a single contribution of $10,000.

Under the new law, in-kind contributions for fundraising can only be accepted when the party has given prior written approval. One exception: Food and beverage purchases of $1,500 or less can be approved by phone.

Joni James can be reached at 850 224-7263 or jjames@sptimes.com