TALLAHASSEE — Dozens of Florida legislators are in New Orleans this week for three days of pro-business pep talks, policy seminars and great food.
The annual meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, features topics such as public pensions, Medicaid reform and tax policy, with such conservative stalwarts as economist Arthur Laffer and former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
And who's picking up part of the tab? Taxpayers and lobbyists.
Several dozen lobbyists will be at the Marriott in New Orleans for the "Florida Night" dinner, an ALEC tradition. This year's is at historic Antoine's and features trout Pontchartrain ($120 per person) or filet with marchand de vin sauce ($130).
Even though a 2006 state law forbids lobbyists from wining and dining lawmakers, a former counsel to the state House of Representatives said it's legal for lawmakers to accept money from a business-backed ALEC scholarship fund as long as the money being used was donated before the gift ban took effect in 2006.
The informal legal opinion by former House attorney Deborah Kearney says in part: "The organization has significant funds that were collected prior to the effective date of the law and which, when collected, even those from lobbyists and principals were entirely lawful."
Based on that advice, Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, Florida's liaison to ALEC, authorized use of limited money to pay for lawmakers' meals, and up to $500 each for travel.
"I've got fairly tight purse strings on it," Patronis said. "I felt that this was an honest way to allow the dollars to be used."
ALEC's 2009 federal income tax return shows the group had slightly more than $1 million in funds designated as "scholarship agent." The group did not respond to e-mails and phone messages.
Nearly 50 legislators, all Republicans, have signed up and can pay for part or all of the conference with public money from their district office accounts. They also are using excess campaign money, and many are bringing spouses at personal expense.
"I decided to go because I'm going to learn. I'm a geek in that way," said first-term Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa.
Young said she will use district office money and possibly ALEC scholarship money to pay her registration fee. She's paying for her travel and hotel personally.
Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, is covering conference expenses with campaign money, and will hold a campaign fundraiser today in New Orleans.
"Obviously there are going to be lobbyists there, and I figure it would be an easy place, if they have checks, to come by," Nunez said.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, says this is his fourth or fifth ALEC event.
"It's a great place to share model legislation and a great place to learn what's going on in other parts of the country," said Baxley, who sponsored a major rewrite of Florida's election laws that's under challenge in court.
Baxley said his so-called 2005 castle doctrine bill, which allows people in Florida to use deadly force to defend themselves in their homes or cars, became a model for other states.
"A lot of ideas get shared and aired there," Baxley said. "It's a very collaborative process."
Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is at his first ALEC conference.
"I don't buy any legislation off the shelf," Brandes said. "We like to tweak it here and there and make it our own. But it's a good starting point to have legislation that's already been somewhat vetted."
But what ALEC calls "model legislation," critics call shilling for corporate interests, many of whom donate large sums to the group and help draft bills and resolutions.
The liberal Center for Media and Democracy has launched a website, alecexposed.com, that shows how ALEC's corporate benefactors serve on ALEC task forces. The watchdog group Common Cause said Wednesday that 22 major firms serving on ALEC's "private enterprise board" donated more than $38 million in state elections in the last cycle.
Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, worked with ALEC this year on a proposed constitutional amendment that prohibits laws that would force people to join health care plans, an attack on federal health care changes. ALEC is promoting the idea in state capitals nationwide.
Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, is at his first ALEC conference and said he is paying for it with a combination of personal cash and office account money as he seeks job-creation ideas.
"Unemployment. That's the key right there," Glorioso said. "What are other states doing that's working or not working? I'm looking for an education."
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.