By ALISA ULFERTS
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 6, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- Pharmaceutical companies battled over generic drugs, phone companies over access rates and lawyers over nursing home lawsuits.
In all, lobbyists for those and other groups spent almost $3-million trying to sway lawmakers during the six months that included the 2001 legislative session.
"It was a good investment," said lobbyist John Law.
"We didn't get the issue we wanted, but we got our message out to many Floridians," Law added.
His client, Floridians for Fairness, spent $424,568, most of it on television ads involving one of the biggest lobbying battles in Tallahassee this year: a $177-million fight between AT&T and Florida's three biggest local carriers, Verizon, Sprint and BellSouth.
Lobbyists are required to report how much they spend wining, dining and educating lawmakers on behalf of corporate clients. Lawmakers, in turn, must report campaign contributions and are forbidden to accept gifts worth more than $100 from lobbyists.
If $3-million (or about $18,000 per lawmaker) sounds like a lot, it's less than the $4.1-million lobbyists spent during the same time last year, according to state records.
"Maybe it's the economy. That would be a desirable effect" of the downturn, said Ben Wilcox, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Florida.
Wilcox said the money lobbyists spent, which does not include campaign contributions given directly to lawmakers, political parties or political action committees, seems surprisingly low.
"I think it's more of a blip. ... I haven't noticed any downward trend in (overall) lobbyist spending," Wilcox said.
Another expensive battle of the 2001 session involved nursing home staffing levels and litigation.
The AARP of Florida, which wanted beefed-up staffing requirements in nursing homes, spent $103,539. The Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers, which opposed limits on some damages in nursing home lawsuits, spent $161,617 and the trial lawyer-backed Coalition for Family Safety spent $185,343. The total comes to more than $450,000.
"We'd do it again," said Charles Roberts, chairman of of the Coalition for Family Safety. The bulk of the money spent was for ads opposing caps on punitive damages against nursing homes found to be negligent, Roberts said.
"We felt the legislation went way too far to protect businesses at the expense of seniors," Roberts said.
Lyn Bodiford, a lobbyist for AARP, said this is the first time her organization has spent serious money on lobbying in Florida. AARP bought T-shirts for volunteers to wear while packing committee hearings and spent about $30,000 busing volunteers to the Capitol, she said. But much of the money spent went to research.
"We hired a consultant, and we did focus groups," Bodiford said.
In comparison, the Florida Health Care Association, a network of nursing homes, spent just $4,585 pushing for strict limits on nursing home litigation. Given the meager investment costs, the payoff was significant: the association was rewarded with a law that severely limited punitive damages in such lawsuits.
How did that group invest so little and get so much? Easy, said spokesman Ed Towey. Many of the people who showed up for rallies paid their own way.
"And some of the costs were paid by other groups" such as Associated Industries of Florida, Towey said. Associated Industries is a large, business-backed special interest group in Tallahassee. It supported another lawsuit limit package the legislature passed several years ago.
Towey's group wasn't the only one that seemed to get a big payoff in exchange for seemingly inconsequential lobbying expenses. Barr Laboratories got several drugs included on a list that pharmacists can automatically substitute with generic equivalents, and spent just $376 during the time the bill was debated.
Barr makes the generic equivalent of the popular brand-name blood thinner Coumadin, which was added to the list. Du Pont Pharmaceuticals makes the brand-name Coumadin, and spent more than $7,000 during the same time, though its investment didn't appear to pay off as well as Barr's.
The Florida Board of Regents spent nothing to lobby lawmakers during the latest reporting period, although that may have been a mistake. Lawmakers abolished the board during the 2001 session and replaced it with a statewide board of education. The regents board lobbyist could not be reached Wednesday.