Editorial: Lobbyists should not be needed to get state to pay up

Published June 7 2018
Updated June 11 2018

Floridians who have been harmed by their government should not have to hire a lobbyist to make the state pay up. And they certainly should not have to hire the brother of the speaker of the Florida House to have a better shot at getting lawmakers to allow them to collect the damages they are owed. But that’s the way it works in Tallahassee, where political influence trumps fairness and the talk of real reform is so much hot air.

The Associated Press reports that nearly half of the money the Legislature approved in so-called claims bills over the past two years, $16.9 million of the $37.5 million, was awarded to victims represented by lobbyist Michael Corcoran. That last name should ring a bell. The lobbyist’s brother is House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes. How convenient.

The House speaker spent the last two years railing against special interests and the influence of lobbyists. He pushed through new restrictions and public disclosures about dealings between lobbyists and legislators. He’s also complained about the revolving door between the Legislature and the lobbying corps, and he backed a constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall that would ban public officials from lobbying for up to six years after they leave office. Yet a quixotic effort this year by Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, to push a change that would have restricted lobbying by close relatives of legislators — such as, say, brothers — was summarily squashed. Coincidence?

Beyond the Corcoran brothers, the system for getting the government to pay awards that injured Floridians have won in court is broken. When someone sues the state or local governments and wins a large award, the government does not automatically write a check because it is protected by the state’s sovereign immunity law. That law caps payments at $200,000 for individuals or $300,000 total, which are modest limits. If a jury awards more than that, plaintiffs have to ask the Florida Legislature to pass a claims bill so they can get the award they have been granted. In practice, that means hiring a lobbyist.

So, for example, Michael Corcoran’s firm was hired to work a claims bill to compensate a family that sued the Brevard County Health Department for medical malpractice. The investment paid off, because the Legislature passed the bill and it was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott. Particularly outrageous is how lobbyists are sometimes hired to defeat claims bill. The AP reported one instance in which an insurer for Volusia County hired a lobbyist to kill a claims bill filed on behalf of a Kansas woman. She is owed nearly $2 million after being injured and disfigured when she was run over by a county-operated truck on Daytona Beach.

Richard Corcoran is right about one thing. He says the Legislature should consider claims bills and that if a jury decides government "absolutely violated the rights of citizens, then it should absolutely pay those citizens.’’ But getting those payments out of the Legislature should not require hiring Corcoran’s brother or another lobbyist.

The answer to this long-running mess is not for the Legislature to refuse to consider any claims bill. That happened during 2013 and 2014, and that wasn’t fair to victims. The answer is real reform with an objective, clear set of procedures for approving payments to victims who have been injured by the government. If they win damage awards in court, they should not lose in the Legislature because they did not hire the right lobbyist.