Lobbyists invited to help pay for House training
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000
TALLAHASSEE -- Guess who will be picking up part of the tab for educating new state legislators?
Lobbyists for many of the state's best-known businesses. Hundreds of letters have been sent to lobbyists and others who might pay as much as $15,000 for seats at a dinner where former U.S. Education Commissioner William J. Bennett will be speaking.
The James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank based in Tallahassee, sent out the invitations on Oct. 27 to raise money for training sessions designed to educate new members of the state House of Representatives.
Those buying tickets to the dinner are being offered an opportunity to meet the new legislators "in a social setting." VIP seats will sell for $250, but some tickets will be $150. The Institute wants three sponsors to pay $15,000 each for VIP tables; six sponsors at $10,000 each; nine sponsors at $5,000 each and table sponsors at $2,500 each.
Term limits forced 51 members out of the House this year. Several others have been defeated and a couple of members decided against seeking re-election, a situation which means the House will have more than 60 new members.
Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, the man who will become House speaker if Republicans retain control of the House next week as expected, asked the Madison Institute to handle the training sessions. The Institute merged last year with the Foundation for Florida's Future, a think tank put together by Gov. Jeb Bush in 1995 after he was defeated by Gov. Lawton Chiles.
Feeney said he did not know the organization was soliciting money from lobbyists and has not seen the letter.
"I think they are soliciting from their entire base, not just lobbyists," Feeney said. "They are a 501 (c) 3 organization and solicit from everybody."
Ed H. Moore, president of the Madison Institute, said he sent out hundreds of letters to lobbyists, those who make campaign contributions and various other mailing lists that include representatives of companies that do business in Florida.
Feeney said new House members will not be required to attend the Bennett dinner.
The training sessions, slated to begin when legislators are in town for an organizational session Nov. 21, will include appearances by former Gov. Reubin Askew and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
Feeney said he has asked the institute to keep the sessions bipartisan and informative enough to get newcomers up to speed on issues and circumstances they will face as lawmakers.
Feeney said he is working with Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, to create programs that are not partisan.
"I haven't blessed any speaker or specific agenda yet," Feeney said.
Feeney said he wants to complete the training sessions before he makes committee assignments which are likely to be delayed until January.
Moore said the Institute is not charging the state's taxpayers for the training and needs help to offset the costs of bringing in speakers and setting up about 10 days of training for all new members.
"It's a unique challenge," Moore said. "It's drawing interest from people around the country because Florida is one of the first states to demonstrate the effects of term limits."
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