Casino gambling debate money boosts state fundraising totals

TALLAHASSEE — Lobbying interests forked over nearly $20 million worth of reasons for lawmakers to go their way leading up to the 2012 legislative session.

That's how much money went to political parties and nearly 40 committees run by top legislators in a six-month stretch ending Dec. 31, new reports show.

Unlike candidates' campaign accounts, which are limited by $500 contribution limits, special committees and parties can receive unlimited donations.

The big winner: the Republican Party of Florida, which received $7.5 million in the final three months 2011 alone — its biggest off-year quarter in the past 15 years. The Florida Democratic Party received $1.8 million in the same period.

"The Republican Senate majority has been more successful at attracting support than at any period in our history," said Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

The biggest donor overall was health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida. Its companies gave more than $1.5 million to the lawmakers' funds and parties over the final six months of last year, including $660,000 to the Republican Party of Florida in the final three months of 2011. The insurance company contributed $50,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.

"Donations to political candidates and organizations are designed to support our public policy positions to offer protection to as many Floridians as possible and promote our commitment to the public good," company spokesman John Herbkersman said in an email.

From Oct. 1-Dec. 31, top donors to the Republican Party included Progress Energy ($220,000), casino interest Genting ($200,000) and Walt Disney World ($165,000). The Seminole Tribe, another gaming interest, gave $175,000.

The big givers to the Democratic Party were Disney ($155,000), the Seminole Tribe ($105,00) and Genting ($103,000). Those three groups are involved in a fight over bringing three resort-style casinos to the state.

A committee affiliated with Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Let's Get to Work, raised $437,000 in the last half of 2011, including $100,000 from the Florida Retail Federation.

Gambling money was a theme throughout most of the fundraising reports.

One of the most vociferous opponents to the casino proposal, Walt Disney World companies, donated $672,000 to the parties and lawmaker committees in the second half of 2011. Florida Jobs PAC, a committee affiliated with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, another casino critic, donated $370,000.

But supporter Genting brought its checkbook, contributing $509,000, too.

Another big donor was Automated Healthcare Solutions, which furnished $470,000. The Miramar firm sought tighter reporting requirements for prescription drug monitoring. It makes software used by workers compensation doctors who dispense drugs in-house.

The largesse of cash reflects the tensions and uncertainty of a redistricting year and the pressures to keep the Republican majorities, said lobbyist Ron Book.

"Do I hope that a phone call gets returned? Do I hope I get an appointment when I want? I sure hope so," said Book, a veteran lobbyist who gave more than $120,000 in latter half of 2011. "But there is no quid pro quo."

Recipients hope the money can rub off, too.

For example, Sen. Jack Latvala, who wants to become Senate president in 2015, has ties to three committees that took in more than $368,000 for the last half of 2011.

His rival for the Senate presidency, Andy Gardiner of Orlando, took in more than $500,000 through two committees.

"Obviously, I use that to help people who think the way I think up here," said Latvala, R-Clearwater.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter @DeCampTimes.

Casino gambling debate money boosts state fundraising totals 01/11/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 12, 2012 8:25am]

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