Lobbyists take in $200M

A Times analysis shows how much businesses and others pay to influence lawmakers.

By Alex Leary, Times Staff Writer
Published February 21, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - The price tag for influencing state government in Florida: More than $200-million.

In the second year that lobbyists have had to disclose how much they made peddling their clients' wishes to lawmakers, state agencies and the governor, a St. Petersburg Times analysis found one of the nation's largest lobbying corps earned roughly five times the payroll of the Tampa Bay Rays in 2007.

Among the biggest spenders were utility companies, health care firms, gambling concerns and a low-cost cigarette maker.

The two top-grossing lobbyist firms were those with close ties to former Gov. Jeb Bush and fellow Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. Southern Strategy Group pulled in $9.5-million; Smith & Ballard, $8-million.

"It's staggering. Government has become a major industry," said lobbyist Ben Wilcox of the political watchdog group Common Cause.

The group, which lobbied for paper trails on voting machines and other election reforms, spent $115,000 in 2007, including Wilcox's salary. However, it was not part of the state report because Wilcox is an inhouse lobbyist.

Corporate interests "are trying to manipulate public policy," Wilcox said, "and in the end, the public ends up losing."

Businesses and their lobbyists see it differently, arguing government is increasingly complex. Theyreject any negative connotation and say their clients, many of them regulated by government, need representation.

"It's important to make sure lawmakers are educated on all sides of the issue," said Ron Book, one of the most successful lobbyists in Tallahassee. His clients include corporate giants like BellSouth and Wal-Mart, but also causes for the blind and disabled.

Book's firm fees in 2007: $5.2-million.

Today there are 13 lobbyists for each of Florida's 160 lawmakers. The national average is 5-to-1, according to the Center for Public Integrity. But not all lobbyists are created equal. A small cadre like Book makes millions; others make far less.

But it wasn't until the 2005 Legislature passed a law requiring lobbyist fee disclosure that the public knew for sure how much money they made.

A well-versed and connected lobbyist often assists lawmakers in drafting bill language or influences how a state agency awards contracts. They also can play key roles in lawmakers' re-election campaigns by helping with strategy, fundraising and introductions.

Florida lobbyists made roughly the same amount in 2006. But pinpointing exactly how much was spent is impossible. By law, the figures are mostly reported in ranges. So if a contract is $10,000 to $19,999, then $15,000 is reported.

The report is also incomplete because, under state law, only contracted lobbyist fees are reported. Organizations that employ inhouse lobbyists do not have to report fees.

The Times settled on the $200-million number by drawing from the two ways the data is collected: The average compensation reported by lobbying firms ($208-million) and the average amount those same firms reported per client ($187-million).

Spending the most on lobbyists was BellSouth, which has merged with AT&T. It spent at least $1.7-million on outside lobbyists. What did it want in return? Passage of a bill that makes it easier to get into the cable TV market.

After a divisive debate, the bill passed and Crist signed it into law. The company would have also had business before the Public Services Commission, the state agency that regulates utilities.

Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility, spent the second-largest amount,just over $1-million lobbying both the Legislature and state agencies. FPL employed at least 26 outside lobbyists.

"Last year, we had an incredible amount of work before regulatory bodies ... plant sitings, transmission line issues," said company spokesman Mayco Villafana. "With the amount of growth that is taking place in Florida, we need to expand our electrical grid."

The Florida Hospital Association and other medical providers also spent liberally, as did TECO Energy and GTECH, a state Lottery vendor.

Local government also hired lobbyists, to secure funding for roads, water treatment plants, parks and pet projects. The city of Tampa, for example, spent about $275,000. Pasco County spent about $155,000.

The top grossing lobbying firm for the second year was Southern Strategy Group, which reported fees between $5.6-million and $13.4-million for an average of $9.5-million.

The firm has dozens of clients, including the Florida Hospital Association, Embraer Aircraft Holding and TECO Energy. Its partners include former House Speaker John Thrasher, former Bush staffer David Rancourt and Paul Bradshaw, whose wife was once Bush's chief of staff.

Next was Smith & Ballard, which earned fees ranging from $4.4-million to $11.6-million, for an average of $8-million.

"Government is a very complex enterprise," said Brian Ballard, former chief of staff for Gov. Bob Martinez and a close ally of Crist's.

Ballard currently has more than 100 clients, including cities, counties, hospitals, insurers, utilities, developers, drugmakers, parimutuels and pro sports teams, including the Tampa Bay Rays. He helped GTECH secure the lottery contract.

"Corporations live and die based on their regulatory environment," Ballard said, "so it's smart practice to have someone who understands the process and can guide them through the ups and downs of everyday Florida government."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

Big bucks flow freely in lobbying industry

Lobbying is big business in Florida. Here's a look at who spent the most trying to influence the Legislature and state agencies and who earned the most peddling their clients' wishes:

The big spenders

- BellSouth (and AT&T): $1.7-million

- Florida Power & Light: $1-million

- Hartman & Tyner (gambling): $980,000

- HCA Healthcare: $940,000

- Dosal Tobacco Corp: $905,000

The big earners

- Southern Strategy Group: $9.5-million

- Smith & Ballard: $8-million

- GrayRobinson, PA: $7.2-million

- Ronald L. Book, PA: $5.2-million

- Johnson & Blanton: $4.5-million

Note: Lobbying fees were reported with high and low ranges. The numbers in this chart are averages.