TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers converged on the state capital this week, at a cost of some $100,000 in taxpayer money, for a few days' worth of meetings to discuss legislation and policy matters in advance of the 2010 legislative session.
The senators and representatives heard agency reports and updates, pondered a few bills, and began complicated considerations of future redistricting. But by Friday, when most lawmakers returned to their home districts, the biggest questions and issues facing the state remained unresolved: the proposed Seminole gaming compact, how to use federal stimulus dollars in next year's distressed budget, and rising Medicaid costs, to name a few.
For many lawmakers, the real work came after hours — during more than two dozen fundraisers for incumbents and first-time state candidates, Republicans and Democrats.
Future House Speaker Dean Cannon, sponsor of a handful of those evening receptions, insists the committee week fundraisers are "a matter of geography" and convenience.
"It's convenient because everyone is in the same place," said Cannon, R-Winter Park. "But I have never seen any influence between fundraising and policymaking during committee weeks or any other time."
Critics beg to differ. They say the scheduling of fundraisers during committee week, a practice not allowed during the regular session, amounts to taxpayer-funded fundraising.
Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson said he will propose legislation to ban the flurry of fundraisers during committee weeks.
"The state should not be paying for members to come up here to do fundraising," said Lawson, D-Tallahassee. "I know members who are up here for three days and they are only on one or two committees. The rest of the time is fundraisers. It's got to stop."
Details on the money raised the past few days won't be available for months, but a look at campaign contributions made during the committee weeks preceding the 2009 legislative session show how much cash flows through the capital city before a session.
In all, the three February 2009 committee weeks yielded about $865,000 for sitting legislators. Moreover, in the week before the March legislative session kickoff, lawmakers collected about $570,000. At least 78 percent of the contributions were dated March 2, the day before the session began.
"We have to look at serious issues, and you don't want to have undue influence like that," Lawson said.
The fundraisers have long been a reality of committee weeks in the capital. Over light hors d'oeuvres and small talk, lawmakers and would-be lawmakers hold court to collect checks from supporters — namely lobbyists and their clients.
"It's the least pleasant part of the job: raising money," said Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, who held a February fundraiser.
This week's receptions began Monday night, with events at the Governor's Club for Reps. Doug Holder, Robert Schenck and William Snyder and at the Florida Health Association office for Rep. Denise Grimsley.
Tuesday and Wednesday night were more of the same, with more than two dozen Democratic and Republican lawmakers holding events in spots just a short walk from the Capitol building.
House budget chief Rep. David Rivera was at the Governor's Inn hotel seeking donations for his state Senate campaign. Longtime Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman was across the street at Clyde & Costellos raising money for his Senate bid. St. Petersburg Rep. Bill Heller joined fellow Democrats, Reps. Mia Sands and Franklin Sands, at the Governor's Club next door.
"We've been doing this since the beginning of time," shrugged Sen. Mike Haridopolos of Indialantic, the future Senate president who has been tasked with raising money for several Republican candidates. "We're all in town. This is where we meet."
Haridopolos and Cannon sponsored Wednesday's event for Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. Cannon and Rep. Will Weatherford, the Wesley Chapel Republican likely to assume the speaker's post after Cannon, hosted three receptions at the members-only Governor's Club on Wednesday night.
Sen. Nan Rich, like Lawson, didn't have any fundraisers this week. But she defended the practice, saying lawmakers balance their work with the money hunt.
"To be fair, the fundraisers are in the evening," said Rich, D-Sunrise. "People can work all day, and they do."
Rep. Rivera of Miami said he arrived Monday and spent the next few days in more than three dozen "substantive meetings" and "five or six committee hearings."
Newly elected Sen. John Thrasher, a former House speaker and longtime lobbyist, said fundraising is an unavoidable necessity for election and re-election.
He would know: Thrasher raised over $200,000 within just a few months during his recent bid to replace the late Jacksonville Sen. Jim King.
"It's part of the process, but we're also doing good work here," Thrasher said. On Wednesday, he and several other senators began what will be a complicated and tense debate on the redrawing of legislative districts.
"We just spent two hours on one of the most important issues that will affect Florida for years to come," Thrasher said afterward. "So it's not all fundraising this week."
Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.