TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature's latest privatization effort is drawing attention from lobbyists and the news media, and for very different reasons.
In a little-noticed action, lawmakers rewrote their rules last session and added a provision to outsource the Office of Lobbyist Registration.
But months earlier, e-mails show, a private, for-profit group, the Florida Press Association, was in informal talks with a key legislative staffer on the subject. The group lobbies on behalf of newspapers, whose reporters are among the most intense lobbyist-watchers in the state.
The lobbyist registration office has only three workers, but its output is monitored closely by everyone who follows state government because it records registrations of thousands of lobbyists and their clients, as well as compensation reports lobbyists have been required to file since 2006.
The mountain of data is stored in an aging mainframe computer that legislative technical experts say costs $2 million a year to maintain. The idea is to shut off the computer and hire a private firm that can modernize the lobbyist website for less money while turning a profit.
Privatizing lobbyist reporting was in part the brainchild of Steve MacNamara, who at the time was chief of staff to Senate President Mike Haridopolos. MacNamara is now Gov. Rick Scott's chief of staff.
"Steve's the person who told me he was thinking about it originally," said Talbot (Sandy) D'Alemberte, a former Florida State University president and a registered lobbyist and attorney for the Florida Press Association. "I told him I thought it made a hell of a lot of sense."
Last December, the press group's general counsel, Sam Morley, began lobbying for the project in a series of e-mails to MacNamara.
MacNamara declined to comment for this article. He and D'Alemberte are long-time friends.
Dean Ridings, president of the Florida Press Association, said his group would make the service more user-friendly by putting lobbyist information online immediately. Under the current system, information is updated once a day. Ridings called the current website "cumbersome" and envisioned interactive computer kiosks where lobbyists could update their registrations and the public could view the data "in real time."
The Florida Press Association employs a team of five lobbyists, including Ridings.
The group has in recent years blocked proposed legislation that would allow local governments' legal notices to be posted on websites, rather than in newspapers. The change would have reduced industry revenues at a time of great change and stress.
Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, who sponsored the bill last session, complimented the Florida Press Association for its willingness to work with him on a compromise proposal to be considered next year.
But Workman said he thought it was a bad idea for a firm with lobbyists to be in charge of lobbyist registration.
"They should either recuse themselves or get rid of their lobbyists," Workman said.
Another business interested in seeking the outsourcing venture is Lobbytools, a legislative information and news service. President Sarah Iarussi said she wanted to know more about what the Legislature wants.
The Senate has crafted an invitation to negotiate or ITN, a form of bid that allows vendors to shape the proposal, rather than merely comply with state-issued requirements. Under an ITN, the state is not obligated to accept the lowest-price proposal. The House is reviewing the ITN.
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, Katherine Betta, said the House's goal is to "retire the mainframe" and have a new vendor in place by July 2012.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.