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Free eats? If public can partake, then legislators can too

Leaders decide a ban on treats from lobbyists can loosen a little. Those mouthwatering Capitol festivals will continue.

By JONI JAMES
Published January 26, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Florida state lawmakers can eat free, after all. At least sometimes.

Less than a week after interim guidelines were issued on a new law banning lawmakers from taking gifts from lobbyists, legislative leaders on Wednesday made clear one key component of Capitol life was still to be enjoyed.

The open, free and heavily advertised outdoor extravaganzas that take place almost daily in and around the Capitol during the legislative session can continue. The events are sponsored by special interest groups - from individual counties to state universities.

Hillsborough County's delegation, as a result, is still planning its third annual "Flavors of Hillsborough" event under the Senate Office Building portico for April 20.

With help from a variety of Hillsborough entities - from poultry farmers to Florida State Fair employees - the event serves up a free smorgasbord of food. The menu includes smoked mullet, cotton candy and Cuban sandwiches.

But the key is that the event is open to the public and the food is free to anyone who shows up.

"Those are the kinds of things we don't believe were intended to be (banned)," the House policy chief, Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, told House and Senate members in a rare joint meeting aimed at clarifying the written guidelines released Friday.

"In fact, what we believe is that it's an opportunity for the citizens of the state of Florida to petition their government. It is something we want to encourage members to attend," he said.

But lawmakers still will have to pay to attend other big functions in Tallahassee, such as the large annual reception at the headquarters of Associated Industries of Florida. Why? Because it requires a ticket, isn't easily accessible to the public and isn't on Capitol grounds.

Lawmakers also learned of another exemption to the gift ban: personalized plaques, certificates and photographs from thankful constituents, groups or industries.

"A plaque with my name on it has zero market value," joked House Speaker Allan Bense. "I don't think any of us envisioned not being able to receive a plaque."

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

[Last modified January 26, 2006, 01:01:17]


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