Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Morgan: Florida politicians never learn

You might think our elected officials could learn from their mistakes.

But time and time again they display a brand of stupidity — and arrogance — that seems to haunt the state capital.

When I went to Tallahassee at the end of 1985 to cover the governor and Legislature, it wasn't long before I began to notice the splendid treatment legislators and some governors got from lobbyists, especially the lobbyists who worked for the state's major corporate interests.

Back then, there was little attempt to hide that lobbyists were providing food, drinks, airplane flights and other perks to leaders in both political parties. Hunting trips to posh preserves in Georgia, Texas, Mexico and other places were common. No lawmaker had to hire a bartender or a cook or someone to carry his bags from the airport. Eager lobbyists stepped forward to fill any need.

When former Agriculture Commissioner Doyle Conner staged an annual trail ride for lawmakers outside Tallahassee, lobbyists joined the party and provided recreational vehicles for legislative leaders so they wouldn't be inconvenienced by the need to find a bathroom or bar in the woods.

In those early days it was a crime, a misdemeanor, to accept gifts valued at more than $25 without reporting them annually. We started taking notes of the visible perks. No one was shocked when we wrote that lobbyists, who were required to report gifts they gave to legislators, reported giving far more than lawmakers reported receiving.

Legislators acted quickly. They eliminated the criminal penalty. Can't say they don't act quickly when they see a need!

In that case, they didn't act quickly enough. Two dozen lawmakers were charged with second-degree misdemeanors by Leon State Attorney Willie Meggs in 1991 for failing to report trips taken before the law was changed, and all pleaded no contest to the charges and paid fines. Legislators changed the law again in the midst of the investigation, making it illegal for all public officials to accept any trip or gift valued at more than $100.

Then, virtually all of the legislative leaders were Democrats. In 1996 that changed as Republicans took over.

Little else changed.

The lobbyists still ran the place. And when term limits started in 2002, the big business lobbyists gained even more control.

Instead of being a misdemeanor that could land them in court, violations were examined by the state ethics commission — whenever someone was willing to file a formal complaint, a rare occurrence. Even if the ethics commission found wrongdoing, it would be up to lawmakers punish one of their own.

That's when legislators started using political parties as a laundry of sorts.

Newspaper reports of trips and gifts continuing to be provided to legislators in 2005 prompted Senate President Tom Lee and House Speaker Allan Bense to push for an absolute ban on gifts to lawmakers from lobbyists or the businesses that hire them. Fundraisers were exempt. The ban became law in 2006 and survived lawsuits filed by lobbyists.

It didn't solve the problem. Legislators couldn't accept a cup of coffee from a lobbyist but they could take limited campaign contributions. That didn't generate enough money to feed the growing cost of campaigning. So lawmakers established political committees that could accept unlimited amounts of money. That created the idiotic situation where legislators could not accept a free lunch but could take a $100,000 check from the folks who used to buy lunch.

It wasn't long before lobbyists were being asked to sponsor "fundraisers'' and pay the travel expenses for legislative leaders to travel to New York City to watch the Yankees play from the owner's box. Some lawmakers staged golf tournaments and fishing trips where lobbyists and business leaders paid thousands of dollars to play and fish.

In the last few years the "in'' trip for legislative leaders, Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam was a hunting junket to King Ranch in Texas. Campaign finance reports reported "in kind'' air travel donations from U.S. Sugar but there was no disclosure of the destination or the participants.

A recent Tampa Bay Times series outlined trips made to the King Ranch in private jets provided by U.S. Sugar and reported as "in kind'' contributions to the Republican Party of Florida.

Since U.S. Sugar leased 30,000 acres at King Ranch in 2011 the company has paid the GOP more than $95,000 for at least 20 weekend trips. More than a dozen Florida politicians, including Scott and House Speaker Will Weatherford, acquired hunting licenses in Texas for dates that coincide with the trips.

When Times reporters asked Scott, Weatherford and Putnam about the trips, all referred questions to the Republican Party and refused to discuss their participation. The party refused to answer any questions.

Those trips were "fundraisers'' and perfectly legal, the politicians whined.

Fundraisers used to be staged by politicians to raise money from various individuals and groups. In this case, the King Ranch trips were solely for the benefit of U.S. Sugar and their lobbyists. No one else participated.

For years the sugar industry has been among the biggest donors to both political parties in a state where the industry has frequently fought off efforts to impose strict environmental regulations. But the trips gave the company an opportunity to "rent'' political leaders for a weekend of exclusive hunting and companionship with no environmentalists in sight.

It is an overwhelmingly disappointing scene: Sugar lobbyists quietly providing transportation in private jets for a trip to a posh hunting lodge thousands of miles away from Florida.

Is it any wonder that sugar has fared well when it comes to passing legislation that determines the future of the Everglades and agricultural issues?

It may be legal, but it is dead wrong. And the refusal of those who participated to answer questions is ample evidence of how bad this looks.

Although Weatherford initially refused to discuss the trips with a Times reporter, he admitted to me last week that he went.

"I have been there at least twice,'' he said. "I have hunted and raised funds for the party.''

It is disappointing to see a bright young House speaker who is likely to have a future in politics and an agriculture commissioner who wants to be governor some day defend the trips.

Most of all, it indicates Florida politicians have learned nothing over the past 30 years.

Lucy Morgan is a retired state capital bureau chief and senior correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times. She wrote this exclusively for the Times.

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