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Senate panel preserves ban on gifts from lobbyists

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's ban on lobbyists buying food and drinks for lawmakers appears safe for another year.

A Senate committee Thursday soundly rejected a proposal to let lobbyists and their clients spend up to $20 at an event, as long as the legislator consumed food and drink at the event. An amendment would have prohibited multiple lobbyists from sharing the cost of more expensive meals.

The gift ban was a surprise result of a face off between the House and Senate in a December 2005 special session. The Senate sent the proposal to the House, never anticipating the House would support a blanket ban on all freebies. The Florida Supreme Court recently voted to uphold the law, which also requires lobbyists to disclose their fees. Many lawmakers dislike the gift ban and must avoid taking even a glass of water at a public event or write a check every time they go to a forum where food is served.

The $20 exemption was contained in a bill (SB 1506) sponsored by Senate Democratic leader Al Lawson of Tallahassee, whose hometown restaurants, bars and hotels have felt the brunt of the economic effect of the ban. Lawson offered what he called a "reasonable" exemption, but it was obvious that the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee had no interest in loosening restrictions on free food and drink.

Upset at the swift rejection of his bill, Lawson accused his colleagues of being "hypocritical" and showing "a lack of courage" for fear of being criticized by the media.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who led the opposition, said the gift-ban law makes sense and it is "absurd" to be discussing free meals for state legislators at a time when state employees face losing their jobs. "Nothing has stopped us from meeting with our constituents," Fasano said. "What we passed a few years ago was historic, and right."

After a move to avoid a vote on the bill failed, the panel voted 7-1 to kill Lawson's bill. Only Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, voted yes. Voting no were chairman J.D. Alexander, and fellow Republicans Fasano, Carey Baker and Andy Gardiner; and Democrats Arthenia Joyner, Charlie Justice and Nan Rich.

Testifying for Lawson's bill were restaurateur Andrew Reiss, lobbyist and bistro owner Jeff Sharkey, bar owner and downtown business leader Dave Ericks, Doubletree Hotel manager John Kelly, Chamber of Commerce leader Sue Dick, Tallahassee Mayor John Marks and Steve Metz, representing the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.

"There's very little perfection in the laws," Metz testified. "They have to be refined over time. I think it's clear that the bad part of what you passed — probably an unintended consequence — was the negative economic impact that it's had in this city."

Metz also said the ban has had a "chilling effect" on trade associations and nonprofits organizing advocacy events around the breaking of bread. Others said that, in turn, has hampered the capital's catering business.

"We've suffered," Ericks said, estimating his catering business is down by half. "We only have two seasons here — the Legislature and football season."

Sharkey said the gift ban has slowed "the wheels of democracy" because civic leaders and groups, unable to offer a free continental breakfast or light lunch, are unwilling to hold events at all, which restricts their ability to express their views on public policy.

"I got to give credit to the press," Lawson said. "The members were in fear that the press would put them in a difficult light."

Leaving the meeting afterward, Mayor Marks criticized the vote as "another slap in the face to local government."

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

Senate panel preserves ban on gifts from lobbyists 03/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 26, 2009 1:02pm]
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