TALLAHASSEE — If Florida's political landscape is any test, neither the recession, unemployment nor the state's fiscal crisis has hurt political donations.
The Republican Party of Florida collected a record $3.4 million in the second quarter, between April 1 and June 30, exceeding donations from every off-year election during the same period since 1997, when Republicans took control of the Legislature.
The Florida Democratic Party didn't have the same success, raising just $1.1 million, nearly identical to what it raised the past two off-year election cycles during the same quarter. This year, however, $426,000 of its collections came from a political action committee formed by Republicans to elect Alvin Brown, the Democratic mayor of Jacksonville.
The largest donations to Republicans came from the state's electric monopolies, health care companies, hospitals and insurers. The biggest sum came from Juno Beach-based NextEra Energy and its affiliate Florida Power & Light Co. which contributed $280,000. U.S. Sugar Corp. and its affiliates gave $275,000. Individuals and companies affiliated with Anderson Mining gave $190,000. Tenet Healthcare Corp. contributed $160,000. TECO Energy gave $145,000. And HCA and several of its Florida affiliates gave Republicans $110,000.
The largest Democratic Party donor was a group called Conservatives for a Better Jacksonville. It gave $426,000 to successfully elect Brown. The group was financed primarily by Republican fundraiser and former St. Joe Co. head Peter Rummell. Other major contributors to the Democratic Party included Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, which gave $124,624, and the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which gave $41,000.
The largest individual contribution to the GOP was $115,000 from Miguel B. Fernandez, a Coral Gables-based health care investor who last year launched a $20 million fund to invest in startup health care companies in Florida. Akshay Desai, the New Port Richey cardiologist and founder of Universal Health Care Group who was recently reappointed State Board of Education by Gov. Rick Scott, gave Republicans $90,000; and James Heavener, a real estate investor and member of Scott's inaugural committee donated $80,000.
Although Scott's impact on party fundraising was evident from friends like Heavener and appointees like Desai, the engine of the GOP's fundraising efforts continues to be the Legislature.
Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville, the Republican's designee for Senate president in 2012, said the reason for the record haul was simple: redistricting. The legislative session, which traditionally begins in March, starts in January next year and, if the session gets extended into overtime, as it did in 1992 and 2002, lawmakers will be pinched for time.
Republicans are "accelerating our efforts because we have a shorter season to raise resources and campaign," he said. By contrast, the GOP raised only $1.1 million in second-quarter fundraising in 2009 and $2.2 million in 2007.
But in Tallahassee, money means access to lawmakers.
For example, the top political priority of NextEra and Florida Power & Light is to pass legislation — it failed this year — that allows them to have control of the alternative energy market in Florida and recover the cost of building solar energy plants. They also hope to receive a rate increase before the Public Service Commission next year.
Private prison giant, the GEO Group, gave the party $100,000 after it succeeded in persuading the Legislature to privatize additional prisons in Florida. Save Our Internet Access, a political committee, donated $20,000 to Republicans and hopes to persuade them not to regulate Internet sweepstakes cafes.
Rick McAllister of the Florida Retail Federation said that the recession has affected the ability of his members to make political contributions. "The small- to medium-sized contributors — who don't make up the bulk of the money — are having a harder time than the larger ones," he said.
But when legislative leaders call for money, lobbyists don't like to turn them down either. When asked to exceed or match what they donated before, McAllister said they typically say "times are difficult and we'll go back to our members and see what we can do. So far we've been able to make those numbers."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.