Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Taxpayers will keep paying for lobbyists in Tallahassee, despite House speaker, who calls it a 'disgrace'

TALLAHASSEE — Three decades ago, lobbyist Ron Book persuaded a public hospital to pay him to protect its interests in a faraway Capitol, just as private businesses do.

Book still represents the South Broward Hospital District, and he earns more than $1 million a year lobbying for nearly three dozen local governments, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Pinellas counties — all paid for by local taxpayers in Florida.

"It's just a necessity to make sure that taxpayers are properly represented," Book says. "We're smart enough to understand the system."

Cities, counties, colleges, school districts, sheriffs, airports and seaports all pay lobbyists to help them fight for state money, protect home rule powers and fend off political interference in Tallahassee.

But what local officials call a necessity, Florida's new House speaker Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, calls wasteful. He says taxpayers should not have to pay so that one group of politicians can talk to another, using well-connected lobbyists as intermediaries.

"It's a disgrace that taxpayer dollars are used to hire lobbyists when we elect people to represent them," Corcoran says. "The state doesn't do it, and neither should the locals."

He says private companies can hire all the lobbyists they want with private money but government lobbying, paid for with taxes, is different.

Government spending on lobbying is far exceeded by what private industries spend.

In addition to his public clients, Book last year earned another $4.5 million, or nearly three times as much, from a long roster of clients that includes AT&T, AutoNation, Florida Power & Light and the NBA's Miami Heat.

That total is a low estimate, and is based on lobbyists' fee disclosure reports filed with the state in which income is listed in wide ranges.

But lobbying paid for by taxpayers is an easy target for Corcoran, a conservative firebrand who two years ago launched a populist crusade against "Gucci-loafing, shoe-wearing special interests" in a pitched debate over health care expansion.

Corcoran tried in November to outlaw taxpayer-funded lobbying as part of his broader strategy against business as usual in the Capitol.

But when House members balked, Corcoran pushed through a rule requiring lobbyists to file their public contracts with the state as a condition of lobbying the House. He can't force private interests to disclose the same information.

Government contracts are already public record, but now they will be listed alphabetically on the House website, myfloridahouse.gov. It's the one place where Corcoran says taxpayers can now see for the first time which lobbyists profit the most from public money.

"Top 10 lobbyists who get taxpayer money," Corcoran says. "Top 10 county commissioners who let lobbyists do their job because they stink."

It is unclear where taxpayers would save money if governments stop hiring contract lobbyists. If a local government has its own employee do the lobbying, that work would be paid for by taxpayers, too. If a local government has its elected officials do their own lobbying, which Corcoran favors, there's a cost with that, too.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, a former Republican legislator, said it makes no sense for Corcoran to insist that local officials do their own lobbying.

"The average county commissioner has no idea how to lobby," said Crist, who spent two decades in Tallahassee. "You've got to have a full-time person monitoring the process, engaged in the process and developing relationships."

Crist says if Corcoran had his way and local governments couldn't hire lobbyists, business interests would have even more clout than they do now.

Cities get lobbying help from an advocacy group, the Florida League of Cities, which had 16 lobbyists on its payroll in 2016. The Florida Association of Counties hired a dozen lobbyists.

But those numbers pale in comparison to the armies of hired guns for private industry, whose agendas often clash with local governments.

Florida Power & Light had 35 lobbyists on retainer in 2016. Disney had 34, Florida Chamber of Commerce 26 and Duke Energy 21.

"You'd better take it away from everyone else, too, or you're going to create a one-sided advantage," Crist said.

Hillsborough will spend $72,000 this year on a contract with the lobbying firm of Smith, Bryan and Myers, which, with the county's support, hired a Tallahassee law firm at a discounted rate of $295 per hour for legal advice.

One county priority in the 2017 session is resolving the fate of the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission, which local lawmakers say has failed to adequately regulate ridesharing services.

At the same time, cities and counties are preparing for a battle over the state's implementation of Amendment 2 legalizing medical marijuana use.

Some cities and counties want laws to block medical pot access near schools or churches, but they also don't want the state dictating a one-size-fits-all solution to what they say is a matter of home rule.

Local governments say they need muscle to navigate the Capitol during the fast-paced nine-week session in an era when term limits have sapped the Capitol of its institutional knowledge and cities and counties are cast as adversaries, not partners.

Last spring, counties hired teams of lobbyists who successfully opposed unfunded mandates, limits on property taxes, repeal of red-light cameras and efforts to weaken home rule through state preemption of local regulations.

"I've seen up close how the Legislature tries to cripple local government," says Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach. "If you don't have an incredible story to tell, you had better get yourself a lobbyist."

Lobbyists spend years currying favor with lawmakers and raising money for their campaigns — as well as for those local elected officials who hire them to work on their behalf.

Book, 64, an Aventura lawyer, his wife and his law firm gave more than $1.5 million to candidates for the Legislature and statewide office since 1996, according to the state campaign finance database.

Several lobbyists declined to comment for this report, and Book, the most visible target of Corcoran's wrath, made no objections when asked.

"I'm deeply respectful of the speaker's thoughts on the issue," Book said.

Corcoran has angered local officials, who say they need lobbying muscle to compete with private industry, to ensure that their voices aren't drowned out by corporate interests that have traditionally wielded the most power in the Capitol.

"Lobbying is not a four-letter word," says Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, a former Democratic lawmaker. "Lobbyists are a resource. If you're smart enough to know what you don't know, you hire the right people."

In Broward, seven firms divided $326,000 in fees to lobby for county government in Tallahassee in 2016.

The county's chief of intergovernmental affairs, Edward Labrador, said lobbyists were a big help in the county getting $2 million for a water supply expansion project.

"Right there, we just got a 6-to-1 return on investment," Labrador said. "It benefits us to have people who have good relationships with people who are not in our delegation, and with people who are in leadership."

Cities and counties also pay lobbyists exclusively to secure state money through the practice of budget "earmarks," a practice Corcoran also deplores.

"Too many appropriations projects are giveaways to vendors and the decision of whether they get in the budget has more to do with their choice of lobbyist than the merits of the project," he told House members at his swearing-in ceremony in November.

But local officials say too much is at stake to leave it to chance.

The Tampa Port Authority has 10 lobbyists from two major firms registered on its behalf as it seeks $500 million over five years for capital improvement projects to spur the region's economy.

"We are going to do everything we can to make our port successful," port director Paul Anderson said. "The state is our investment partner."

Like anyone who's successful in Tallahassee, Corcoran has had frequent interactions with lobbyists. Their clients' money was necessary to secure the elections of House members who made him speaker.

But Corcoran draws a distinction between party fundraising and lobbyists being paid by Florida taxpayers.

"There's two different worlds," Corcoran said. "But I've said very clearly there's lines between the two. One is public with public dollars and one is private with private dollars."

Corcoran's brother Mike is a lobbyist who was paid by taxpayers of Miami, Miami Beach and Hillsborough County last year.

Richard Corcoran can't stop the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying, but his crusade claimed its first victim a few days after he took office as speaker on Nov. 22.

Commissioners in Corcoran's home county of Pasco voted to cancel a $60,000-a-year deal with lobbyist Shawn Foster at the end of 2016, and instead will rely on county employee Ralph Lair, a former legislative aide.

"My idea is to save the taxpayers' money," said Commissioner Mike Wells Jr. "We should do it internally going forward."

That's the exception.

St. Petersburg recently signed up a Tallahassee lobbying firm, Capitol Alliance Group, that bid $50,000 a year. Plant City is in talks on a deal with Southern Strategy Group.

City Manager Mike Herr said that Plant City plans to spend about $50,000 next year, if the City Commission approves the pick based on a competitive selection.

"We felt it was better to have someone full-time working on our behalf," Herr said. "We've got full-time jobs back here, managing the city."

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.

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