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For their own good
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Better look that gift horse in the mouth
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published July 8, 2007
After 18 months, you would think legislators, lobbyists and staffers would have it figured out.
The law couldn't be clearer:
No freebies from lobbyists. That means no steaks. No martinis. No free golf clubs. No trips to the Fiesta Bowl.
The Legislature passed a law in late 2005 requiring lobbyists to disclose income and barring lawmakers and staffers from accepting anything of value from lobbyists.
Not even a cup of coffee.
The goal was to curtail a crass lifestyle of government workers living off the largesse of lobbyists.
But campaign contributions weren't covered. So a form of madness has ensued.
A blueberry muffin is now the symbol of undue influence in Tallahassee, not a $50, 000 campaign contribution.
Many still find the gift ban confusing. Hardly a day goes by that somebody doesn't seek clarification. Lawyers for the House and Senate are busy dishing out advice.
In the past few weeks alone:
- The Hillsborough County legislative delegation asked if lawmakers could bring spouses and kids to an official tour of Lowry Park Zoo, known as a "site visit." No, the lawyer said, the offer was really a free trip to the zoo, which employs a lobbyist.
- The University of Florida asked if it could give wall plaques to legislators. (Yes. Plaques are exempt from the lobbyist expenditure ban.)
- Dee Bennett, the wife of Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, asked if she could solicit donations from lobbyists on behalf of two nonprofits. (Yes. The gift ban doesn't include a legislative spouse acting on her own).
- At the request of legislators, Walgreen's agreed to hold free diabetes screening tests in Miami. Fine, said Senate counsel Steve Kahn, adding the boldface exception: "No member or employee of the Legislature may take the diabetes screening test."
You know something is seriously sick about a political process that waves through six-figure campaign contributions, but sees a free diabetes screening as a threat to democracy.
But that's the law.
Let's say a legislative staffer waiting to find out if the diabetes screening test was legal passed the time reading Governing, a magazine popular with policy wonks.
Oops. You guessed it: violation. Even the free magazine is illegal because of the parent company's connection to a lobbyist, a connection that hits close to home.
As Kahn explained it to a House staffer in an e-mail: "Governing is published by Congressional Quarterly, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Times Publishing Company of St. Petersburg, Florida, which also publishes the St. Petersburg Times."
In March, Kahn ruled that legislators can't receive free copies of this newspaper or the Tampa Tribune as long as executives of either paper serve on the board of the Florida Press Association, a statewide newspaper industry trade group that hires a lobbyist.
That, Kahn said, gives those papers "indirect, but substantial" lobbying connections to the Legislature, which triggers a provision in the gift ban.
In the name of "cleaning up politics, " this is what we've come to in Florida. Unrestricted campaign contributions are legal, but a free copy of this newspaper could get someone a hefty fine.