TALLAHASSEE — An effort to legalize lobbyist gift-giving surprisingly cleared its first hurdle Monday despite warnings by opponents that it won't look good back home in a year of $4 billion in budget cuts.
The Senate Rules Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections voted 7-4 to advance the bill pushed by Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole. Prospects for passage are shaky because Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a U.S. Senate candidate, strongly opposes the idea, and lack of time may prevent a floor vote.
Jones, the longest-serving member of the Legislature, blasted the 2006 gift ban that prohibits a lawmaker from accepting a free cup of coffee from a lobbyist while allowing lawmakers to solicit checks as large as $25,000 from special interests to political committees, saying it has chilled all forms of socializing.
His bill, SB 1322, would allow lobbyists to provide $25 worth of food and drink or gifts to lawmakers. Items worth more than $25 up to $100 would have to be reported, and anything over $100 would require approval of the Senate president or House speaker.
"What I see happening in this process in the past five years is a disservice to this state," Jones said. "This is turning into a leadership-run organization and it shouldn't be that way."
Senators were sharply divided on lifting the gift ban.
"I think the timing is kind of bad," said Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, who voted no. "I can see the newspapers, as we make all these austerity cuts, that we're going to allow, as they say in the press, 'more freebies.' … I think we'd get roasted in the press."
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who voted yes, said: "I actually resent the suggestion that I could be bought for a cup of coffee or a bottle of water."
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who voted yes, said the ban is overly restrictive. "We can't even eat with our own friends if they belong to an organization that employs a lobbyist, and I think that's a problem."
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, reminded senators of a scathing grand jury report that described "a culture of corruption" and said: "We have to clean up our image and I'm not sure this is the way to go."
A Quinnipiac University poll released last week showed a plurality of people in Florida viewed the Legislature unfavorably, 47 percent to 35 percent.
The restaurant industry, which claims the gift ban has had a crippling effect on revenues, is lobbying for Jones' bill, as is Tallahassee Mayor John Marks, who said some eateries were forced to shut down in the wake of the ban.
"This is about jobs," Marks said, tearing a page from Gov. Rick Scott's political playbook. "We need relief."
Ben Wilcox of the League of Women Voters urged defeat of the bill, saying enactment of the gift ban was a positive step to show voters "that the decisions you are making are not being influenced by money."
"That's why it's called public service and not public entitlement," Wilcox testified.
Steve Bousquet may be reached at email@example.com or 850-224-7263.