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Senator proposes curbs on lobbyists

Senate President Tom Lee said Tuesday he wants to keep lobbyists from serving on the boards that run Florida universities.

His proposal would force them to make a choice: work as a public servant or work for hire as a legislative lobbyist.

"The goal here is to build a fire wall between the Legislature and the governance of the state university system," said Lee, a Brandon Republican. His prohibition would apply both to university boards of trustees and the Board of Governors, which runs Florida's university system.

Lee's proposal comes two days before the Florida State University board of trustees takes up a controversial plan to establish a chiropractic school at FSU. The school was pushed through the Legislature by two powerful senators.

The chairman and vice chairman of the FSU board _ former House speaker John Thrasher and former attorney general Jim Smith _ are registered lobbyists. As such, they need lawmakers' support to help their clients.

Lee said he decided changes needed to be made as he watched the debate over the chiropractic school heat up in the past few weeks.

Last year, then Senate president Jim King and his close friend, majority leader Dennis Jones, got legislative approval for the chiropractic school with little input or debate. Lawmakers approved a $9-million appropriation after just a few minutes of discussion.

Neither FSU's trustees nor its medical faculty requested the school.

Now hundreds of faculty members are opposing it, saying teaching chiropractic will diminish the standing of FSU's medical school. Some professors have threatened to resign.

King has publicly warned FSU professors and board members not to upset the Legislature by killing the school. King told the Times last week that legislators might cut FSU's budget by $9-million to make up for the money already given to the chiropractic school.

If professors derail the school, "I think the Legislature would be angry," King said.

Lee said his proposal, which will be introduced as a bill, isn't directed against King or any other legislator.

He said he has learned things recently that make him worry about potential conflicts of interest involving some board members.

He wouldn't be specific, but said: "It is very clear to me that there are many on the Board of Governors and the board of trustees that are looking over their shoulder at the potential implications of this vote."

The board could vote for the school on its merits alone, Lee said, "without having to feel external pressure one way or the other."

Lee, who has long railed against the influence of lobbyists and money in Tallahassee, said he admires King and respect his passion for FSU.

"He's a class act," Lee said.

Neither King nor Jones could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Jim Smith, the vice chairman of the FSU board and a lobbyist, said Lee's worries about conflicts may be "a very legitimate concern" on some boards _ but not FSU's.

"If I thought it was a problem, I would resign from the board," said Smith, who said no one had tried to pressure him into supporting the school by threating his lobbying work.

"If they do, they will get a blank stare from me," he said.

Thrasher did not return calls seeking comment.

Only a few lobbyists _ about five by one count _ sit on Florida's 12 university boards. But those who do include powerful figures such as Thrasher and Alberto Cardenas, former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, who sits on the board of Florida A&M University.

Steven Uhlfelder, a lobbyist who sits on the Board of Governors, said Lee's bill cast "too wide a net" to fix a minor problem.

Uhlfelder said he can separate his two roles. He has voted against major projects backed by lawmakers before, even when he needed the lawmaker's support for clients.

"When I am sitting in a public position, I am an official first and a lobbyist second," Uhlfelder said.

The trick is finding lobbyists with the strength of character to resist pressure from legislators, Uhlfelder said. If senators don't have faith in a lobbyist's integrity, they can vote against their appointment, he said.

"There are good lobbyists and bad lobbyists," he said. "You don't legislate against the bad ones by entrapping the good ones."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.