Businesses and other special interests spent an estimated $116.5 million last year trying to influence the Florida Legislature. At least that's the sum reported by the roughly 2,000 lobbyists who ply their trade at the state Capitol. But there's no guarantee that number is anywhere close to reality.
Four years after then-Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, dragged legislators kicking and screaming to pass public-interest reform requiring lobbyists to disclose how much they earn, the Legislature has yet to verify if any of the submitted information is accurate. Legislators on the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee apparently have balked at spending between $750,000 and $1 million annually to hire outside auditors to check the filings, even though state law requires it, according to a recent report by freelance Tallahassee reporter Gary Fineout.
The failure makes a mockery of a law designed to address the reality of modern lawmaking. Lobbyists aren't inherently bad for the process, but their influence has grown exponentially in an era of term limits. They often have more experience and know the issues better than the legislators voting on them. They often write bills and amendments — sometimes at the behest of a client who will pay their firm millions to exert their influence. And the most successful lobbyists insert themselves into political campaigns, helping to raise thousands of dollars to curry favor with candidates even before they're elected.
Lee's goal was to provide some accountability, though the resulting legislation was a compromise. Lobbyists are only required to note dollar ranges — not exact amounts — of the fees they are paid when they file quarterly reports. But with no one checking the data, the public has the illusion of transparency but no confirmation.
Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul need to follow the law so the public can have some faith that the lobbyist disclosure rolls are a true reflection of who is buying influence in Tallahassee.