TALLAHASSEE — After six years of being able to accept unlimited amounts of campaign cash but not a cup of coffee from lobbyists, two legislators are hoping to loosen the state law that bars lawmakers from receiving gifts from the public.
Sen. Dennis Jones, a Seminole Republican and dean of the upper chamber, and Rep. Jimmy Patronis, a Republican restaurateur from Panama City, have teamed up to weaken the law that was once hailed as one of the toughest legislative gift bans in the country. The reason, they argue, is that the complete ban on everything stifles trust and relationship-building in the Legislature and prevents lawmakers from mingling with voters.
"It's probably been the most destructive thing to interacting with our constituents," said Jones, first elected to the House of Representatives in 1978. "I'm not spending 18 bucks going to every reception. I'd rather take my wife out to dinner."
Jones, who will retire because of term limits in 2012, said he is not filing the bill to help himself "but because it is the right thing to do."
But he expects the negative perception to accompany any suggestion that lawmakers be allowed to take anything of value from lobbyists and is also realistic. "I don't think it will pass," Jones said. "But I wanted to do it as a statement."
The gift ban was passed on the last day of a 2005 special session when legislators met to overhaul Medicaid laws and pass rules for slot machines. The idea was proposed by then-House Speaker Allan Bense to counter a proposal by then-Senate President Tom Lee requiring lobbyists to report their income from clients. In the end, both proposals passed and the lobbyist disclosure provision was challenged in court and upheld in 2009 by the Florida Supreme Court.
Since then, the gift ban has increasingly been seen as window dressing on the problem of lobbyist influence: Legislators may not take a trinket, drinks or dinner from special interests — but their political committees, known as 527s, may accept unlimited checks.
Many lawmakers routinely get around the gift ban by using their political committees to pay for meals, travel and catered dinners, sometimes with lobbyists.
Under the proposal, legislators would return to the pre-2005 law that allowed them to accept anything of value up to $25. They would then be required to report anything between $25 and $100 on an annual gift disclosure form and, if a gift is valued at more than $100, they would need permission from the presiding officer to accept it.
That provision is designed to encourage members to accept invitations to speak to association dinners and conventions both inside and outside Florida, Jones said.
Lobbyists smirk at the current gift law as a foolish exercise when they know their checks to political committees of legislators carry much more weight.
"Do you think I've ever gotten a vote from somebody by taking them to dinner? I mean, really?" asked Guy Spearman, a veteran lobbyist from Daytona Beach who unsuccessfully sued the state along with Miami lobbyist Ron Book to stop the fee-disclosure law. "As a matter of fact, usually when you go and do that, you don't really talk about issues, you just get to know somebody better."
Does a $5,000 check go further than a cocktail or steak dinner? "Of course it does," Spearman said.
Meanwhile, he has grown accustomed to the fee disclosure law and is happy to keep it in place. "It's not the end-of-the-world scenario I feared it would be," Spearman said. "I thought clients would use it to negotiate down our fees, but it hasn't worked that way."
Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Tallahassee Democrat, believes the gift ban has had a negative effect on the Tallahassee economy. Small businesses in the capital cater to legislators during the two months they are in session and have been hurt by the drop in socializing, she said.
"Even worse, the absolute ban has put a barrier to civil discourse between members and lobbyists," she said. "There was a time, certainly, when something needed to be done about the problem of legislators taking gifts from lobbyists, but we didn't need a radical remedy that goes overboard."