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Let lobbyists feed us again, says state Sen. Dennis Jones

TALLAHASSEE — It takes a strong politician to admit a mistake.

Most won't, fearing the wrath of unforgiving constituents or a news media that loves to portray politicians as flip-floppers.

Republican state Sen. Dennis Jones of Seminole isn't afraid to acknowledge a couple of whoppers.

Jones, who turns 70 in April, is the silver-haired sage of the Senate — unflappable, soft-spoken, serious and candid.

A retired chiropractor and vice president at St. Petersburg College, he's the chamber's expert on gambling. "And I don't gamble," he says.

In this term-limited age of perpetual turnover in Tallahassee, Jones is the exception to the rule. Most of his contemporaries are lobbyists or retired lobbyists. But he's still casting votes, as he has for 31 years.

After 22 years in the House, he sat out two years (2000-2002) and then won a Senate seat. Now he's in his final two years, representing a swath of coastal Pinellas County.

He has two regrets.

In a reflective mood in his office this week, Jones said he was wrong in 2003 when he voted to inject the state into the case of Terri Schiavo. Two years later, he voted against a revised "Terri's Law" after the first was declared unconstitutional.

"We had no business getting involved in it," says Jones, who at the time was a trustee of Largo Medical Center. "I knew beyond a doubt, that lady was brain dead."

His second regret is more recent. He voted in 2005 to prohibit lobbyists from buying meals, drinks or gifts for legislators.

He says the gift ban is ludicrous in a town where it's a crime for a lobbyist to buy a lawmaker a cup of coffee but lobbyists can write checks of any amount to lawmaker-controlled slush fund committees.

"How can you say you can't get me a hamburger but you can give me $25,000?" Jones says. "What kind of an absurd situation is that?"

He thinks things were better in the '70s and '80s when lobbyists provided steaks, cocktails and even motor homes for an annual trail ride for lawmakers and their families in the Apalachicola National Forest.

He misses the "Wonderful Wednesdays" at a popular seafood restaurant when lawmakers would socialize and bond with each other, and lobbyists would happily pick up the tab.

So Jones filed a bill to allow lobbyists to provide food and beverages for legislators up to a value of $25.

Anything over $25 would have to be publicly disclosed by the legislator and anything over $100 would require approval by the Senate president or House speaker.

"If you can't trust a guy for 25 bucks, you probably shouldn't have elected him anyway," he says.

A similar proposal, pitched a year ago by Democratic Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, was rejected resoundingly by a Republican-controlled Senate committee.

Jones has been around long enough to know that his proposal doesn't stand a chance of passage. But he says the gift ban has resulted in less civic activism in the state capital, because groups can't provide even light refreshments to lawmakers to draw a crowd.

"We're not going to receptions any more, and they're not coming," Jones says. "The process is going in the wrong direction, and I don't know if you can ever turn it around."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Let lobbyists feed us again, says state Sen. Dennis Jones 02/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 18, 2011 8:41pm]

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