By LUCY MORGAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 25, 2000
At meetings all over the Capitol, the talk is of all the bills flying around: budgets to pass, courts to pack, water to regulate, growth to manage, schools to fund.
But beneath the surface, the talk is all money -- campaign money. Lobbyists say they have trouble finding anyone who will talk about passing a bill without first discussing a contribution.
The newest gimmick in a Legislature where the rules forbid lawmakers from having fundraisers during their annual 60-day session appears to be a violation of at least the spirit of the rule.
Invitations go out for candidates seeking election to one of the 53 open House or 11 open Senate seats -- a situation caused by term limits that kick into effect this year.
Technically, the candidates seeking open seats are not current members of the Legislature and can raise money. But the invitations include a notice that speaker designate Tom Feeney or Senate president to be John McKay will be a special guest.
If you break the code, that means that the candidate having the fundraiser has agreed to vote for Feeney or McKay after the November election. The lobbyist who appears with check in hand will please the soon-to-be-leader who holds life or death sway over every bill.
The rule against fundraising during a legislative session was born out of a credibility crisis that emerged when a former Senate president running for insurance commissioner left the podium where he was presiding and summoned insurance lobbyists to his office during the final days of a legislative session.
That was in 1988 when Sen. John Vogt was president and decided to run for the insurance job. It was probably the most egregious example we have seen of a lawmaker using one position to raise money and support for another.
The day he left the podium to court lobbyists, the Senate was voting on a state budget that included dozens of items dear to the heart of every lobbyist. A week later, in the final 48 hours of the session, Vogt invited lobbyists to a fundraiser down the street from the Capitol.
Although the law is frequently ignored, it does forbid soliciting or accepting campaign contributions inside the Capitol or any other government building.
After Vogt's rather crude display of power, legislators moved to make fundraising during a session a violation of their own rules, they but didn't make it a violation of the law.
Legalisticly speaking, a sitting legislator wouldn't violate the rule just by showing up, but in a Capitol where everyone lives or dies with the selection of a leader, it's easy to see what is going on here.
I never thought I would feel sorry for lobbyists, but watching this process has moved me in that direction. It has so thoroughly disgusted some lobbyists that they've left the business, and others would like to leave if they could think of a way to rake in big bucks.
Jim Smith, the former attorney general and secretary of state, may have phrased it best a few years ago when he talked about the feelings of despair present in a lobbyist friend.
"He despises lobbying," Smith said as he explained his friend's mental state. "He didn't have any respect for most of those whose sorry a---- he had to kiss."
It remains the best description of lobbying I've ever heard.
These days the best lobbyists are not the ones who have the best cause or the most knowledge about their subject. They are not even the ones who buy the most food and drink or slap the most backs. They are the ones who can raise buckets and buckets of campaign money.
Former House Speaker Ralph Haben, a lobbyist of some renown, says success today means clients with PAC money to donate. The lobbyist with one or two clients can no longer be successful.
The game is all about money.