Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Special interests flood Florida legislative campaigns with $28 million in 6 months

TALLAHASSEE — As Florida legislators begin their annual session in an election year, at least $28.5 million has been funneled into legislative political committees in the last six months, fueling progress on priority legislation for many industries, and blocking other ideas from advancing, according to a Times/Herald analysis.

For example, while legislation to clear a path for the popular ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft has rolled quickly through the Florida House and is ready for a vote after the first week of the annual session, the industry has not been a big campaign donor, and the bill is a long shot in the state Senate. There, the influence of the legacy taxi industry, and years of campaign cash, defeated the effort last year.

The prospects look better for the oil and gas industry, however. Its top priority — preventing local governments from regulating or banning hydraulic fracturing (fracking) — have sped through both chambers and are deemed priority bills.

"It's moving fast and it's moving hard," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, who has filed a rival bill that would ban fracking in Florida. His bill has not gotten a hearing, and he predicts it won't "because there's no money in stopping environmental degradation. That's not where the cash is."

Unlike the disruptive ride-sharing industry, which is also seeking protection from restrictive regulation by local governments, the oil and gas companies are on their fourth year of trying to get their bill passed, and they have revised their pitch and juiced their proposal — by doubling their campaign contributions to legislators.

The Barron Collier Companies, for example, which are seeking a permit to use hydraulic fracturing to drill for oil and gas in Naples, have steered $115,000 to lawmakers — up from the $63,500 they spent last session. Other members of the petroleum industry have lubricated lawmakers' campaigns with another $170,000. 

Since July alone, at least $9.5 million — in five- and six-figure checks — was sent to the political committees of individual lawmakers. Another $6 million went directly to the campaigns of state representatives and $3 million to state Senate campaigns. The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee raised another $3.2 million for Republican senators. The Republican Party of Florida, which is collecting checks for state House campaigns, raised $4.3 million, and the Florida Democratic Party, which raises money for all its legislators, collected $2.1 million.

The torrent of cash is the result of a shift in state campaign finance laws that allowed for unfettered donations to legislative political committees in the wake of the federal court ruling on Citizens United. Stronger disclosure laws opened the door to more frequent reporting, but there is no requirement for contributors to disclose what issues or bills they are attempting to impact.

Many of the cash-rich special interests are getting preferential treatment as their priority bills have been moving early in the 60-day session. Just as importantly, many ideas that are opposed by influential special interests are getting blocked. The ride-share debate is a classic turf battle, but it's not the only one. Industry fights are emerging over medical marijuana, gambling, schools, solar power, tobacco, hospital regulation, dental care and pain clinics.

"The Uber issue (HB 509) is reflective of so many other issues we've fought over the years," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican with a strong Libertarian streak. He chafes at what he considers the Legislature's predilection "for building the walls higher and the moats deeper" for some industries to maintain the status quo instead of embracing free-market principles.

"Big beer and craft brewers, big power and solar, taxi cabs and Uber — they are the same issue repackaged," he said. "Some people see Florida as a frontier open for business, and others see it as a fortress that needs to be protected. It's free market as they define it."

Jenne, a liberal Democrat, could be Brandes' ideological opposite, yet he sees things much the same way.

"If you're not talking about social issues or red meat issues for your primary, the root of most of the bills we deal with are about making somebody the most money," said Jenne, who is serving in his eighth year.

If lawmakers propose legislation that is opposed by those with lobbying heft and financial clout, it rarely gets traction, he said. "The monied interests you're going up against have just too many people in their pocket to take those votes."

The newest entrant into the field of legislative turf battles is the medical marijuana industry. Two years ago, the industry did not exist in Florida, but a measure pushed by families of children with intractable epilepsy opened the door to the cultivation of non-euphoric strains of cannabis.

Five companies were awarded licenses in November to grow and distribute the new low-THC forms of the drug and some have now hired lobbyists. Costa Farms, a giant Miami-based grower of fruits and vegetables, wants to expand the list of ailments for which low-THC marijuana can be prescribed so it can broaden its market. It gave $88,000 to the political committees of the top players, including $35,000 each to the sponsors of their bills — Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar.

Brandes, who objects to the protectionist framework of the original marijuana bill, has proposed legislation to repeal the law that limits the number of growers to five. His bill has not been scheduled for a hearing.

"We have created a regulatory market that is anything but free market," he said. "We have issued the same amount of licenses as Willy Wonka gave in golden tickets. You have made five families wealthy, and they will fight forever to prevent any change to the regulatory structure."

The power of the purse also has an effect on which bills don't move. 

A $3 billion gambling deal negotiated between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe of Florida is caught in a tug-of-war over the future of gaming expansion as Florida's horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons seek the ability to offer new forms of gaming while the Tribe wants to retain its monopoly over games like blackjack and slots.

The pari-mutuels have written checks totaling $642,659 in the last six months and want lawmakers to revise the agreement. The Palm Beach Kennel Club — which won a provision in the compact to get slot machines — has raised $188,000 of that.

Meanwhile, the Tribe has given legislators $388,000 since last January to help earn support for the agreement, known as the compact, and Disney, which opposes gambling but believes the compact can suppress gaming expansion, has given legislators $1.1 million since July. The proposal will be debated in both chambers but is not expected to be resolved this session.

The state's largest utilities have also worked to kill bills that pose a threat to their monopoly control.

Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, has filed one of a handful of bills that would open the state's energy market to solar energy competition by allowing homeowners and businesses to lease their rooftops to companies that generate solar power and sell it back to the grid. The proposal does essentially what a proposed constitutional amendment being pushed by Floridians for Solar Choice would do but it also allows regulators to charge solar users for the cost of maintaining the grid.

However, Costello is not optimistic. "Even if the bill gets heard, it will not make it to the finish line," he said. "That's because the industry does not want it. That's a pretty high hurdle."

Florida Power & Light, the largest utility in Florida, gave $2.3 million to legislative campaigns, and Duke Energy, the second-largest company, gave $807,000, since July.

FPL gave another $911,500 to the business lobbying group, Associated Industries of Florida and $210,00 to the Florida Chamber of Commerce to distribute to legislators and their political committees — effectively increasing the company's reach but appearing to dilute its concentration.

The contributions were generous and wide-ranging. Since July, for example, Miami Democratic Rep. Kionne McGhee raised $20,050 in his political committee, Florida Standing United PC, and $15,000 of it came from FPL and AIF.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, who is retiring this year from the Legislature because of term limits but is widely expected to run for agriculture commissioner, received the most from the industry: $75,000 from FPL and $40,000 from Duke Energy.

When asked about the issue, he said his main concern is making sure the utilities get paid for their investment in the grid — the chief argument made by the industry and addressed by Costello's bill.

FPL also financed a $5,000 fundraiser for Crisafulli in December, and Duke Energy lent its skybox suite at a Tampa Bay Rays game in September to Senate budget chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon — a contribution valued at $6,356. Duke Energy also supplied sporting tickets, food and hosted events for both Republican and Democratic party events last fall.

Is this how Florida voters want their legislators to decide what issues are top priorities? According to the annual Sunshine State Survey conducted by the University of South Florida and Nielsen polling, the top five issues of concern for Floridians are the economy, education, crime, immigration and the environment, including oil drilling.

House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, agrees with Brandes and Jenne that the way the Legislature sets its priorities needs changing, and he blames both industry and the Republican-led Legislature for passing laws that perpetuate self-interested politics and create barriers to free-market competition.

"I get that you are pro-business but, what matters, is being pro free-market," Corcoran, who will be House speaker next year, told a gathering of Florida Chamber of Commerce executives at the Capitol last week. "If we're pro free-market, everyone will do well. But when you're championing for those things that protect you, the result is horrible."

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, echoed a similar theme in his opening day speech to his chamber.

"It's so easy to come up here and lose sight of why you ran for office in the first place," he said. "When I first ran for office in 1999, I didn't campaign on the most recent vendor fight or the most recent lobbyist issue that was going to come up. I campaigned on things that I believed in."

He urged them to "remember why you ran for office. What was the role of government that you campaigned on and what did you want to ?" And he vowed to help them do that.

But while Gardiner succeeded in getting his priority issue passed — two bills that create opportunities for special needs students and adults — the vendor fights won't go away, even without the campaign cash.

One of Gardiner's lifelong friends, Paul Mears III, is president of Orlando's largest taxi and transit business, Mears Transportation Group. The company has been a long-time supporter of Gardiner, giving more than $150,000 to the Republican Party in the years he was in leadership, and Mears' father has called Uber an "existential threat" to the family's 75-year-old business.

"Every member comes up here with different motivations," concludes Brandes, who is championing Uber's position on the ride-share issue, and he argued that lawmakers must update their approach to policymaking the way technology is forcing taxi companies, auto manufacturers, utilities and other industries to change.

Lawmakers must stop picking winners and losers, "or the process will break down," he warns. "We're in this time between the lightning and the thunder. We see change coming rapidly but we can't yet see the opportunity."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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