TALLAHASSEE — When Florida legislators open their annual 60-day session on Tuesday, many of the decisions about what issues make it onto the agenda have already been made — thanks in large part to the powerful special interest groups and a torrent of cash flowing into the coffers of legislative political committees.
It's all about buying in on the legislative agenda.
The Florida Senate, for example, has offered up a bill to create two new resort casinos, one in Miami-Dade and one in Broward. The proposal comes after a year of study and $400,000 in fees to consultants. The biggest beneficiaries: three casino giants — Genting Resorts World, Las Vegas Sands and the Seminole Tribe — the largest gaming contributors to political campaigns this cycle.
Another example: a bill to preserve a dental care contract for Miami-based MCNA. It failed last year. This year's bill, which would remove $200 million in dental care from the state's Medicaid reform, has rocketed through House and Senate committees even before the start of session. The juice? Proponents say it's the hard work and persuasion skills of the bill sponsors, Miami Republicans Sen. Anitere Flores and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz. It doesn't hurt that MCNA gave more than $355,000 to the political committees of Republican legislators and the Republican Party in the last seven months.
And then there's billionaire Coral Gables executive Miguel "Mike" Fernandez, who is pushing a bill to allow Miami-Dade College and Florida International University to reap the revenue from a proposed half-penny sales tax. After years of legislative resistance, the bill is all set for a vote on the House floor. Who's Fernandez? He's co-finance chair of Gov. Rick Scott's campaign and has given legislators more than $250,000 this cycle and, is the governor's biggest backer — donating $2.4 million in the last four years.
Money has long commanded attention in the Legislature. Businesses hire teams of lobbyists to mount a full-court press on major issues and seed the debate with campaign cash. Lawmakers depend heavily on the special interest money to underwrite their campaigns. But over the past year, the amount of money flowing into political committees is unprecedented and has ignited an arms race for cash.
"The thirst for campaign money has just reached a new level,'' said veteran lobbyist Ron Book, in between two legislative fundraisers in Miami last week. "I say this every year, and every year it gets worse."
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Ironically, the Republican-controlled Legislature last year changed its campaign finance laws in an attempt to put an end to the abuse of political committees known as Committees of Continuous Existence, or CCEs. The old law banned legislators from using the money for their own campaigns but allowed them to raise unlimited funds, write checks to other candidates and finance personal entertainment, travel meals and other lavish expenses.
The new law replaced the CCEs with political committees, a move that opened the fundraising floodgates for key lawmakers who are not household names. These new political committees have been the go-to source for contributors to send unlimited soft money donations to politicians. Dozens of political committees have now been registered with the state Division of Elections, each of them with high-minded titles that are not easily linked to legislators.
In an attempt to increase some accountability, legislators required monthly reporting. While the previous law required that political committees report only every three months, the new law offers a first-time window into contributions before the legislative session begins.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who championed the reforms, denies that contributors buy in to influence the legislative agenda.
"I don't think there's a nexus there,'' he said. "People who support you usually agree with your world view. … Can I sit here and tell you that money doesn't have a role in the process? I'm not going to tell you that. But I would say members make decisions based on their beliefs and their values and the people who reflect those values tend to be the people that support you."
That support is no small amount. A Times/Herald review found more than 20 lawmakers with political committees that have raised more than $100,000 in soft money in this election cycle, which began in November 2012, and at least a dozen committees raised more than $200,000.
Longtime Miami Beach lobbyist Bob Levy said money has always been a major part of what happens in Tallahassee, but the difference is the number of zeroes. "It existed then, but it was $50,000. Today it's $500,000," he said.
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The largest check to date — $250,000 from health insurance giant Florida Blue — went to the House Republican Campaign Committee, the political committee controlled by Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. He was chosen by Republicans to be House speaker in November and leads the GOP re-election effort.
Last session, Crisafulli chaired a House committee that voted 26-0 to reject a Senate plan that would have repealed a 1987 law to give insurance companies a 15 percent tax credit for full-time employees. If the bill had become law, it would have cost Florida Blue an estimated $32 million a year.
In the Senate, the candidate with the largest checks has been Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who controls the political committee named Treasure Coast Alliance. He is feuding with Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, over who will collect enough internal caucus votes to be named Senate president in 2016. The fight is evident in their campaign accounts and on issues like pension reform, hospital trauma center expansion and a dispute between doctors and nurses over whether to allow nurses to expand their scope of practice.
Negron's fund received five checks for $50,000, including one from Fernandez. The health care billionaire is the principal investor in several companies that contract with the state to offer health care services under Medicaid and Negron is the Senate's budget chairman.
Negron also received $50,000 checks from Florida Power & Light, environmentalist Paul Tudor Jones, a political committee controlled by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, and another controlled by Sen. Flores of Miami.
On many issues, interest groups on all sides have anted up. The amount of money is especially large in the Senate, where the fight for the 2016 Senate presidency has bitterly divided the Republican caucus.
Latvala, for example, received a check for $25,000 from AFSCME Florida Council 79, a public employee union that opposes the reforms the House is seeking to close the state retirement fund to new hires. Negron supports the pension change.
To counter the influence of the gambling interests, Disney Worldwide has delivered a handful of large checks to legislators. Flores' political committee, Floridians for Strong Leadership, received $50,000 from the entertainment giant and Disney gave another $50,000 to the Florida Roundtable, the political committee run by Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity. Both lawmakers oppose the expansion of gambling and destination resorts, which Disney also opposes.
Flores acknowledged that she solicited the contribution but "not that amount."
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Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Miami Democrat first elected to the Legislature 40 years ago, recalls how she raised $1 million for her successful 1992 campaign to become Senate president and had enough money to share with other candidates. "It has gotten out of hand," she said.
The leaders in the process today, all Republicans, disagree that money reigns.
"I don't buy the argument at all,'' said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who is scheduled to become Senate president next year.
Corcoran, who is slated to become House speaker in 2016, says that if money could buy the agenda, then Medicaid expansion would have passed last year.
"Every single high-dollar lobbyist and every single special interest is pushing for Medicaid expansion and it has not passed — because principle has trumped raw power and principle has been more influential than all the special interests,'' he said. "It would have been easier for us to say just do it."
But even Rep. Diaz, who is sponsoring the dental carve-out bill, admits "campaign contributions help" because "it gets a special interest group in front of every single legislator."
Legislators acknowledge that whether it's monied interests or ideology, it's easier to stop legislation than move it.
In recent years, attempts to crack down on Internet cafes, assisted living facilities and nuclear power plants have a history of legislative inaction in the face of out-sized amounts of campaign cash.
In 2011, the Miami Herald ran a series of reports that documented more than 70 deaths and a host of injuries over a 10-year period at state-regulated Assisted Living Facilities.
The series prompted Gov. Rick Scott to appoint two task forces to study the issue and recommend sweeping reforms to beef up oversight. Legislators proposed bills embracing the reforms, but amid intense lobbying by the Florida Assisted Living Association, followed by millions of campaign contributions, the proposals never made it through both chambers.
"Let's be honest. It's been (three) years since the Herald broke the story about ALFs,'' said Levy, who lobbies for the Florida Nurses Association. "A lobbyist looks at it this way: If I can keep an issue dead for (three) years, that's pretty good, isn't it?"
This year, the nursing home industry has decided that the lack of ALFs regulation was hurting the nursing home industry's image and passage of the regulatory crack-down is now a priority for Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz. (Nursing home companies and their affiliates have contributed nearly $3.5 million to state political campaigns since 2012.)
Another industry that bought time by effectively blocking legislation was the Internet cafe industry, which used a loophole in the state's sweepstakes law to run high-margin, cash-rich online gambling operations in strip malls across the state. For years, sheriffs and prosecutors came to Tallahassee and pleaded with lawmakers to tighten the loophole and close down the illegal games.
When former Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Seminole, introduced a bill in 2011 attempting to clarify the law, the industry responded, spreading $2.1 million to political committees in 18 months.
Legislators acted only after federal prosecutors last year arrested operators of a $300 million phony charity on racketeering, gambling and money laundering charges. Within two weeks of the arrests, legislators had drafted and passed the law banning the Internet cafes.
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Levy said preventing legislation is the kind of investment lobbyists recommend their clients make all the time.
"If I as a lobbyist can keep an industry alive for five years that might be doing something wrong, that's worth a lot of money," he said. "It sounds trite when people say the money buys access. At my level, that's all I'm buying."
In many cases, when special interests can't stop legislation, they can weaken it.
For six years, Florida Power & Light and Duke Energy, formerly Progress Energy, fended off proposals to rewrite the 2006 nuclear cost recovery act that allowed customers to be charged for controversial nuclear power plants before they were built.
The utilities have always been among the largest contributors to legislative campaigns — with FPL giving $2.6 million in the 2012 election cycle alone. So when voter discontent with the Crystal River nuclear plant finally forced legislators to address the nuclear fee, they succeeding in persuading lawmakers to water it down, not repeal it.
This session, like last year, House and Senate leaders Weatherford and Gaetz released a joint "work plan" of priorities. It includes pension reform, expanding veterans benefits, eliminating the waiting list for disabled patients and passing ALF regulations. Both say that their agenda is not dictated by the buy-in of special interests.
"These issues I believe would not rise to the level of an agenda if we didn't make them an agenda item,'' Weatherford said. "They are not special interest driven. It's the right thing to do."
As for special interests, they are "always going to be around," Weatherford said. It's the Legislature's job "to rise above the special interest food fights and also figure out what are the issues that are plaguing our state."
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.