Pasco commissioners are blessing the idea that partisan political connections are more important than good government.
Tuesday morning, with no public discussion, commissioners unanimously endorsed paying more money to a politically influential lobbying firm, just six months after allowing their own long-time, exclusive and non-partisan lobbyist retire in a budget-cutting maneuver.
The net savings to the county is $60,000, but the cost to the public goes beyond dollars and cents. The County Commission is now a full partner in condoning the standard operating procedures in Tallahassee — special interests funneling campaign contributions to favored elected officials.
That commissioners did this without comment — the contract was on their consent agenda, a list of 77 non-controversial topics approved in a single vote — also shows how the publicly financed lobbying wrongly has become an acceptable status quo. Two years ago, Commissioner Pat Mulieri voted against the renewal, but she offered no dissent this time. She should speak up, if for no other reason, than to explain her inconsistency.
The commission has never satisfactorily rationalized its decision in 2005 to hire a lobbyist to protect its state highway appropriations even though hometown Sen. Mike Fasano was and still is chairman of the Senate committee overseeing transportation funding. The commission selected Slater Bayliss, former aide to then-Gov. Jeb Bush from the Advocacy Group at Tew Cardenas LLC, the firm headed by the former chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
The $40,000 annual contract, plus $5,000 for expenses, has been renewed annually since amid praise from Commissioner Jack Mariano for Bayliss' access skills and endorsements from members of Pasco's legislative delegation. The firm's clients also include three city governments, another county commission and trade groups for real estate agents and asphalt companies.
Despite the push for protecting state funding, there is little mention by commissioners that the major state highway construction projects ongoing in the county — U.S. 41 in Land O' Lakes, State Road 54 in Wesley Chapel and the Interstate 75 bridge over State Road 54 — are being completed because of a significant commitment of local or federal resources.
No matter. Tuesday, the commission expanded the contract to $65,000 a year to cover non-transportation issues. Those topics formerly were covered by county lobbyist Joseph Mannion who retired Oct. 1 to help the commission save the cost of his $85,000 annual contract. Mannion operated independently of the partisan politics. Not so with the Tew Cardenas firm.
Since the start of the 2008 election season, the lobbying firm donated more than $27,000 to Republican candidates including donations to nearly all of Pasco's legislative delegation: Sens. Fasano and Rhonda Storms, and Reps. John Legg, Will Weatherford and Robert Schenck. It also has contributed to the current state House of Representatives campaign of Richard Corcoran.
So what exactly is the county paying for? Better access to its own legislators? A commission so short on cash that it is looking at closing a $14.5 million revenue shortfall by Oct. 1 would do well to consider the appropriateness of affirming its role in the pay-to-play atmosphere surrounding Tallahassee.