TALLAHASSEE — In spite of the worst recession in a generation and the highest unemployment in a century, Florida's health care companies, electric utilities, gambling interests, prison operators and tobacco companies steered more than $10 million into Florida's two major political parties in the first three months of this year.
Their goal: influence legislation and grease the cogs of the state's political machine.
The money flowed in despite a fundraising ban that bars legislators — but not parties — from raising cash during the session. Republicans raised $7.6 million for the first three months, while Democrats raised $2.6 million.
Most of the money came in before the March 2 start of the session.
The list of major contributors to the parties offers a window into the issues before lawmakers this session.
The health care industry, which gave Republicans $585,000 and Democrats $193,000, was the largest industry contributor. Nearly 40 percent of the state budget is allocated for health and human services, and lawmakers are settling several health-related battles.
The biggest fight involves plans in the House and Senate to expand the role of HMOs in managing the $19 billion Medicaid program. The biggest Medicaid HMO donor, WellCare Health Plans, gave $50,000 to Republicans and $7,500 to Democrats.
The Florida Medical Association, a doctors group that gave $110,000 to Republicans and $25,000 to Democrats, is fighting to reduce HMO control over Medicaid doctors. It also is defending against a move by optometrists, who gave $35,200 and who want to be able to prescribe certain prescription drugs.
On the most high-profile issue this year, the controversial teacher tenure bill, teachers unions gave $81,000, all of it to the Democrats. The unions won a rare victory Thursday when Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the bill. But their victory is likely a result of thousands of phone calls and e-mails, not political donations.
"The people spoke, and they spoke loudly," Crist said at a post-veto rally at a Tallahassee high school. "And boy did I hear from them this week."
The electric utilities industry, which is fighting several contentious issues, was the second-largest industry contributor, giving $459,000 to the Republicans and $267,000 to the Democrats.
Florida Power & Light gave $130,000 to Republicans and $75,000 to Democrats. Progress Energy gave $109,000 to Republicans and $162,000 to Democrats, while Tampa Electric gave $215,000 to Republicans and $130,000 to Democrats.
FPL and Progress were stung earlier this year when the Public Service Commission rejected rate increases they were counting on, so the companies are now quietly urging the Senate to reject two Crist appointees to the PSC who voted against the rate requests.
The utilities also want to be allowed to build solar energy plants and charge customers for the full cost without going through the PSC to prove the new power generation is needed.
The gambling industry has also been a major contributor as it asks lawmakers to protect it from increased competition from the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Horse and dog tracks gave Republicans $170,000 — one check came as late as March 23 — and gave Democrats $55,000.
The Realtors Association gave one of the largest single contributions to Republicans, at $270,000. The group also gave $50,000 to Democrats. It wants tax breaks for nonhomestead property owners to help spur home sales, and to encourage sales of lower-income properties by removing the cap on state money for affordable housing programs.
"Just like anyone else, we want to continue good relationships with both parties," said John Rothell, who directs the Realtors' political operations.
One group has already seen results. A top priority for the Florida Retail Association and its members was a bill, signed by the governor Wednesday, that forces plaintiffs in slip-and-fall lawsuits to prove a business was negligent in order to collect a judgment. Publix and Walmart gave $195,000 to the Republicans, while trial lawyers, who opposed it, gave Democrats $105,000.
On a similar trial lawyer issue, resorts such as Disney ($110,000 to Republicans) and Universal Resort ($72,000 to the GOP) also won a partial victory when legislators agreed to let parents sign waivers saying they could not sue entertainment companies over the ''inherent risk'' of activities such as rock climbing.
The Geo Group, a Boca Raton company that operates private prisons, succeeded in getting a provision into the Senate budget to allow it to run a North Florida prison. Senators later scaled back the item in the budget. The company gave Republicans $70,000 and Democrats $25,000.
Cigarmakers, concerned about a proposal that surfaced last year to impose a higher tax rate on them, raised $82,000 for Republicans to stave off a return of the legislation this year. It appears they will be successful.
Telephone companies Verizon, AT&T and Century Link are pushing for deregulation, and gave $175,000 to Republicans and $47,500 to Democrats.
Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this story. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]