The free lunch is making a comeback in Tallahassee.
It has been more than seven years since the Legislature passed a zero tolerance policy that prohibits lawmakers from taking meals, drinks or gifts from lobbyists or their clients.
The ban, the result of a game of political brinkmanship between House and Senate leaders, was intended to rein in nightly freeloading by politicians at lobbyists' expense. But anybody who seriously believes the ban has lessened the influence of special interests would be naive, and wrong.
What the gift ban did was inhibit good fellowship and harmless socializing in a post-term-limits Legislature that needs lots more of both, because people think it's silly and demeaning to be forced to write a $5 check every time they bite into a Triscuit at a reception.
The ban also has made the corrupting influence of unregulated special interest money more glaring than ever.
In today's Tallahassee, a lobbyist is prohibited from buying a lawmaker a cup of coffee but is allowed to write a $50,000 check to the same lawmaker's political fund.
The problem isn't the buffet line. It's the big money.
Fittingly, the lawmaker who's trying to carve out some narrow exceptions to the gift ban is Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who was Senate president when the ban took effect in 2006.
Lee's bill, SB 1634, which won a unanimous vote Monday in the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, would allow lawmakers to accept nonalcoholic drinks from lobbyists at meetings and would allow legislators to accept a free lunch when they are asked to attend meetings of trade groups. Lawmakers who accept a free lunch would be required to report it within 15 days.
Lee discarded his initial, looser exemption that would have let politicians take lobbyists' food and drink at "widely attended events" open to news media coverage.
"It is very, very difficult to draft an exemption to this gift law that allows members to attend widely attended gatherings that you can't drive a truck through," Lee said.
Tampa Bay senators who joined Lee in supporting the changes Monday included Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, John Legg, R-Trinity, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
"This little tweak … was needed," Joyner said.
At the hearing, the mayor of Tallahassee, John Marks, testified in favor of the changes, claiming the gift ban has had a negative impact on the capital city's restaurants, which employ a lot of college students.
Lee's efforts to tweak the gift ban are being done over the opposition of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who has sought to make ethics reform a centerpiece of his tenure. Loosening the gift ban runs contrary to that message and could give Gaetz a case of indigestion.
"I'm just fine paying my dollar for a Diet Coke when I have one," Gaetz said. "I'm just fine with that."
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.