TAMPA — Send in the lobbyists.
But the questions the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority grappled with Thursday were: How many lobbyists should it send to Tallahassee? And how much should it pay them?
The questions arose when the board voted to hire Cardenas Partners, the lobbying shop of former state GOP chairman Al Cardenas, to persuade state leaders to dedicate $250 million to help fund Tampa International Airport's new master plan.
The contract will pay the firm $80,000 a year, with an option for two more. But Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who spent 18 years as a legislator, said that's not enough.
"I hate to throw a dark shadow here at the last moment … but this isn't enough to win," Crist said. "I told Joe Lopano we need $300,000."
Lopano, the airport's chief executive officer, and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn bristled at having to spend that kind of money on lobbying. "I'd love to have $800,000 to lobby with," Lopano said. "But I don't think it's a wise use of our funds."
Cardenas' firm was hired to draft a strategic lobbying plan, which means the airport board could end up deciding to spend more money on lobbying anyway. But Lopano said he also reached out to the local chambers of commerce and other partners to help lobby on behalf of the airport.
The airport plans to spend $935 million to build a consolidated car rental facility 1.3 miles south of the airport and to build an automated people mover to connect it to the main terminal. The project is set for completion in 2017.
The airport is planning to use bonds and federal loans to help pay for it. But Crist was adamant that the authority should hire a posse of lobbyists who can reach out to key legislators and the governor to make sure the airport gets those funds.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, [email protected] or @jthalji on Twitter.