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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Corcoran: A 'disgrace' for cities and counties to hire lobbyists

1

November

Rep. Richard Corcoran, the Pasco County Republican who will become Florida House speaker in three weeks, calls it "a disgrace." He's referring to the widely-accepted practice of cities, counties, school boards and other local governments hiring Tallahassee lobbyists to represent them at the state Capitol. This major profit center for the lobbying industry easily costs Florida taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and Corcoran wants it to end.

"I think it's a disgrace that taxpayer dollars are used to hire lobbyists when we elect people to represent them," Corcoran told the Times/Herald. "The state doesn't do it and neither should the locals."

State agencies have in-house lobbyists (LADs, legislative affairs directors) who are state employees. Local governments do too, but they hire contract lobbyists, some for six-figure salaries, to supplement the work of their own staffs. The practice is institutionalized at every level of government in Miami-Dade and Broward counties in South Florida.

Corcoran, who will ascend to the speakership three weeks from today, has been at work for months rewriting the operations manual of the House, known as the rules, in ways that have Tallahassee lobbyists on edge and may make their daily lives a lot more difficult. Corcoran's path to success was paved with the generosity of Tallahassee's special interests, but he has vowed to "blow up" a system in which term limits has made some lobbyists more powerful than lawmakers themselves.  

Passing a law to ban use of taxpayer money for outside lobbyists would never fly in the Senate. Any lobbying restriction could face First Amendment challenges under the First Amendment, which includes a right to petition government for a redress of grievances. But the founding fathers could not have anticipated that Broward County would spread enough money around to pay 23 lobbyists, or that the city of Jacksonville would hire 14, or Cape Coral eight. Corcoran's outrage will achieve its own result, quietly, as staff directors of House committees will soon discover ways to avoid opening their doors to hired guns for local governments.

Lobbyist Ron Book, who declined to comment for this article, had 32 government clients on the payroll in 2016, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Pinellas counties, Miami-Dade schools and both of Broward's tax-supported hospital districts. Book, who donated $5,000 to Corcoran's political committee, the Florida Roundtable, has been pitching for local government longer than just about anybody in Tallahassee, and over the years he has said that they have just as much right to be heard in the halls of Tallahassee as anyone.

Book and lobbyist Guy Spearman sued the Legislature a decade ago, and lost, over a law requiring lobbyists to disclose their fees.

Adopting new rules is one of the first steps the new House will take at a brief organizational session on Nov. 22. While Corcoran acknowledged that he probably can't prohibit governments' use of lobbyists, he said: "We have to move in the direction of shutting them down. Something has to be done about this and we have to move in that direction." He demanded that the mayor of Miami-Dade, Miami or Miami Beach (his brother Mike is a contract lobbyist for both cities) cite a case in which they couldn't get an appointment with a legislator.

This issue has been a pet peeve of Corcoran's for years. Three years ago, he blasted his home county for seeking proposals from lobbying firms.

Corcoran is pointing the finger at local governments, but the real culprit here is the Legislature itself -- as Corcoran himself has noted repeatedly ("The enemy is us," he said last September, referring to the House).

It's fundamental why cities and counties enlist armies of lobbyists every session: because they make campaign contributions, and people who do that can get the ear of a lawmaker a lot faster than a city or county employee. The practice is so ingrained in the political process that large cities and counties now require lobbyists to sign "conflict letters" in cases in which lobbyists also represent private clients whose interests are at odds with their government clients.

In a memorable Tropic magazine article in The Herald in 1998, Book told reporter John Dorschner: "Only a naive person would say that campaign contributions have nothing to do with the process. Does that get my phone call returned? Yes. Does it get me a meeting? Yeah. They listen to me in person, rather than say, 'Send me a memo.'"

Corcoran insists that he'll find a way in the House to shine a spotlight on a practice he deplores. "Remember," he said. "We control the chamber."

[Last modified: Tuesday, November 1, 2016 5:58pm]

    

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