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Even in tough times, political cash still flows to Florida lawmakers

TALLAHASSEE — Almost $4 million in political contributions washed through the state Capitol since January, far more cash than lawmakers reaped during a similar period last election season, according to new campaign finance reports.

More than a quarter of this year's money flooded campaign coffers in the five days before the March 3 start of the legislative session, the cutoff for fundraising to avoid the perception of vote-buying by special interests.

Add in political groups and politicians who aren't bound by the fundraising ban, and the total contributions closely connected to the Capitol stand at $11 million for the most recent campaign reporting period, from Jan. 1 to March 31.

The biggest contributors by industry: health care, legal, insurance, lobbying/consulting, and telecommunications. The top individual contributors: Hospital Corp. of America, AT&T, TECO Energy and Florida Power & Light.

Criticizing the link between big donors and lawmakers, a state grand jury on Friday indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom and Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg on charges of official misconduct.

The felony indictments involved $6 million in state college money Sansom secured for an airport sought by developer Jay Odom, who was charged with no crime. Odom has helped contribute $1 million to the Republican Party of Florida, Sansom and a political committee once controlled by the Republican representative from Destin.

"The present system has the potential to breed corruption and create an unfair advantage for those who have money to leverage influence on the Legislature," the grand jury report said.

The grand jury report was released hours after Sansom's Republican House colleagues closed public testimony and debate to force a quick vote on a sweeping election bill. It could make legislative fundraising easier and make the tracking of some campaign funds more difficult.

Lawmakers and contributors say money doesn't buy votes for donors, only access.

Still, they acknowledge the cash for the 2010 election season is especially striking in a year when the economy is in the worst shape in recent memory.

"I think the bad economy has driven folks to try to raise money earlier because no one knows how bad it's going to get. So they need to get the contributions while they're there," said Ron Book, a top-flight lobbyist. He contributed the most of any single person in Florida — about $56,000 — to lawmakers' individual campaign accounts.

One reason for this year's big numbers: Two candidates aren't bound by the legislative fundraising ban — and they hauled in the most.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat who raised $1.3 million, isn't a legislator. So she can raise money whenever she wants for re-election or a possible 2010 gubernatorial bid.

State Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat who raised $363,000, is running for a U.S. Senate seat, so he can continue to collect checks during the session.

Even without Gelber and Sink counted in the fundraising totals, legislators still hauled in an average of 15 percent more than in the 2008 cycle.

The biggest single contributor to lawmakers and political groups so far this year: HCA. It gave $278,000 of the $1.1 million contributed by the health industry.

This session, HCA has pushed a measure to change the way legislators spend more than $1 billion in Medicaid money for hospitals.

As the largest private hospital chain in the state, HCA has a major stake in the nearly $4 billion federal Medicaid stimulus money.

"As an important provider of health care and a large employer in Florida, we believe it is incumbent upon us to be involved in the political process,'' the company said in a written statement.

AT&T — the second-largest single donor in the state this year — is at the forefront of a push to deregulate land-line phones. Opponents say it would result in poor service and high rates. AT&T lobbyists and officials say the opposite.

The company showered lawmakers and political groups with $200,400 in campaign contributions this year — almost half of the $464,500 total given by the industry. It has hired 69 registered lobbyists and a top-notch Tallahassee public relations firm to press its case.

Two of the state's largest energy companies, TECO and FPL, are heavily involved in the lawmaking session because of a bill mandating the use of more renewable and "clean'' — including nuclear — energy. The companies gave $150,500 and $130,500, respectively, to lawmakers and political groups.

Rounding out the top industry givers are lawyers and the legal community, who contributed a total of $963,500, amid battles over workers' comp and court funding. The insurance industry contributed $690,700. It is also involved in the workers' comp fight and proposals to overhaul the hurricane-insurance market.

As soon as the lawmaking session ends May 1, legislators will likely head back to the fundraising circuit.

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@miamiherald.com.

fast facts

How this year compares

During the first three months of this year, the 108 lawmakers at the state Capitol running for office raised a total of $3.9 million. That's an average of $36,000 per candidate — in a state where the yearly median income for a two-person household is $33,000.

During a similar period in the 2007-2008 election cycle, 88 lawmakers raised $1.6 million, an average of almost $19,000 per lawmaker.

Even in tough times, political cash still flows to Florida lawmakers 04/19/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 8:08pm]

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