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Limits on legislators who lobby are eroding


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2000

Adecade ago, the Florida Ethics Commission placed limits on former legislators who wanted to work as lobbyists for state agencies.

That ruling came in response to questions about the lobbying of former north Pinellas Rep. Peter Dunbar, who left the House to become general counsel for then-Gov. Bob Martinez.

Since voters approved a 1976 constitutional amendment sought by Gov. Reubin Askew, legislators have been prohibited from lobbying for compensation for two years after they leave office.

In 1990, the Ethics Commission said former legislators working for Martinez could answer questions when summoned by legislative committees, but they couldn't wander around lobbying at random.

That decision was a change from a 1981 decision issued when then-Gov. Bob Graham wanted to hire a senator to lobby for him. Back then, the commission said Graham would have to use other employees to do his lobbying if he hired the senator.

This week, the Ethics Commission was asked once again to look at the question and find a way to let a handful of former legislators who now work for Gov. Jeb Bush use their skills to help state agencies.

Instead of saying no, the commission has called a special meeting for next Thursday and directed the staff to research the issue.

Guess who is chairman of the Ethics Commission?

Dunbar, the former legislator who went to work for Martinez. Dunbar thinks state agencies should be excluded from the rule because the lobbyist is not working for his own enrichment. Bonnie Williams, executive director of the Ethics Commission, sees a potential problem here.

"If we start allowing it, where do we draw the line between state government and counties and local government?" says Williams. "There is a market for government lobbyists."

Askew's original "Sunshine Amendment" was designed to restore ethics in government and put a stop to a revolving door that saw legislators leave office and immediately begin using their connections to help some special interest.

Dunbar and others see a big difference when the state is the client that needs a lobbyist.

Former Sen. Bill Bankhead, now head of the Department of Juvenile Justice, asked the commission for a new decision last week.

He is not alone. Dr. Bob Brooks left the House to take over at the Department of Health; former Rep. Carl Littlefield went to work for Bankhead; former Rep. Luis Morse became deputy secretary at the Department of Elder Affairs.

If the Ethics Commission relaxes the rule, all of them could begin lobbying legislators for their agencies.

There is other slippage in the way the Sunshine Amendment is applied. Several former legislators have become "consultants" for lobbying firms that use their expertise behind the scenes.

They don't show up and pitch an issue at a committee meeting, but they are present at social events and fundraisers, helping their new employers.

* * *

Week One of this year's session is over. So far they've had a fight over the daily prayer and the portrait of a former speaker in the House.

Over in the Senate, they are denouncing the governor's tax cuts and trying to speed up the budget process to finish work while they are in session. That would force Gov. Jeb Bush to review the budget and use his veto pen in seven days. House Speaker John Thrasher stands in the way of that plan.

The sighs of relief you hear are coming from lobbyists who don't have to donate any more money until the session ends. That ended Monday night at the annual Associated Industries party with a final round of check passing.

The hottest potato so far? Bills to make it harder to sell below-cost gasoline.

Stay tuned.

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