At the midway point, Florida lawmakers pay attention to powerful interests

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, right, addresses a joint session of the state’s Legislature in Tallahassee.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, right, addresses a joint session of the state’s Legislature in Tallahassee.
Published Apr. 6, 2015

TALLAHASSEE —With Florida lawmakers having reached the halfway point of their 60-day session last week, the lineup of legislation with traction looks like a Who's Who of fundraising and lobbying heft:

• Sugar growers, who collectively gave $6 million to the governor, Legislature and both major political parties in the 2014 election cycle, persuaded legislators to block the state from buying land they no longer want to sell for Everglades cleanup.

• State worker unions, which contributed $6.8 million to legislators in the last election cycle, and the teachers union, which gave another $2.4 million, kept the Republican-controlled Legislature from reforming the state retirement system.

• The powerful HMO industry, which through more than a dozen participating plans contributed $5.6 million to legislators and the governor's campaign, is poised to compete for multimillion-dollar state contracts to provide mental health services.

• And, in a sign of how winners and losers are often decided, the for-profit charter schools industry won House approval to draw taxpayer money from public school districts to pay for building construction with little public debate. The industry contributed more than $1 million to legislative coffers.

"Money plays a huge role in what goes on up here" and the issues that "get traction just happen to line up with a lot of those large campaign contributions," said House Democratic leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. But, he noted, "I don't think it's any different than any other year."

The 2014 election cycle was unprecedented in the amount of money that flowed into the governor's race and legislative campaigns under changes to the state campaign laws that allowed unlimited amounts to go to political committees and political parties. Gov. Rick Scott alone spent more than $100 million to get re-elected.

Nearly all of the big donors have a stable of lobbyists ready to influence legislation and, by mid session, there were 1,826 lobbyists registered, 10 for every legislator, representing 3,559 companies.

In the debate over buying land for Everglades cleanup, U.S. Sugar lobbyist John M. "Mac" Stipanovich said the Legislature sided with his industry because it was a bad deal for the state — not because of campaign contributions.

"I'm not denying that Big Sugar doesn't contribute a lot of money, but occasionally, as counterintuitive as it sounds, they might be right,'' Stipanovich said. "Do contributions have an effect? Of course they do, but they're not always the outcomes they'd like."

Eric Draper, a veteran lobbyist for Audubon of Florida, said he began the session trying to fend off a fast-tracked bill to make it easier for large landowners, like Big Sugar, to avoid regulations.

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"We were run over. I didn't get around to members quick enough,'' said Draper, who has just four lobbyists compared with U.S. Sugar's 27-member lobbying team.

Draper said public-interest groups like his are at a disadvantage because they don't have the staff or the money "to match the relationships" that the big lobbying teams have.

"We aren't at the golf tournaments. We can't give money to political parties. Those social connections are pretty much cut off,'' he said.

Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican and former Senate president who now serves as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said these investments have turned the Legislative process into one that now "turns on relationships.''

"I have never seen the process more relationship-driven and less policy-driven than it is today," he said, noting that relationships extend beyond the lobbyist to legislator and are also shaped by legislators' relationships with other lawmakers.

"It's member-to-member — an internal quid pro quo,'' he said. "Bills are being heard and not heard on the basis of internal and external relationships, not necessarily the policy."

Lee acknowledged that some interest groups have such an influence on the process that "no one even bothers to look to see if there is a justifiable reason for policy changes" and decisions have become "transactional" instead of transformative.

The dominance of special interests spawned warnings from Lee and House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, in speeches last week. Lee chastised the influence of education-accountability advocates like the Foundation for Florida's Future, founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, during the debate over school testing. Corcoran said "the enemy is the status quo" and warned of the hospitals and health care lobbyists pushing lawmakers to expand a "broken Medicaid system."

Both urged members to challenge the status quo, be willing to transform big government and not be beholden to special interests ­— even those that have helped Republicans control Tallahassee for the past 18 years.

"We're becoming just like the people we sought to unseat in the mid '90s,'' Lee told the Times/Herald, referring to the Democrats who dominated the Legislature until 1996. "We were willing to challenge the status quo when the program wasn't of our making but now, many of the service-delivery models of state government have been reshaped by Republicans and we want to defend them."

Meanwhile, a handful of bills that have gotten the most attention this session challenge so-called legacy industries — the alcohol industry led by Anheuser-Busch, dog tracks, taxi companies and electric utilities. Each is being threatened by disruptive upstarts ready to challenge their traditional business model.

While the House has been inclined to pass legislation to update laws to help craft brewers and social-media based companies, like the ride-share program Uber or the vacation rental company Airbnb, the Senate has weakened the proposals or let bills languish in committee.

"Our main goal was to be able to get this disruptive technology out there to make it more accessible to people and to bring down some of those barriers to regulation,'' said Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, chairman of the House Economic Affairs Committee.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has written much of the "disruptive technology" legislation, describes it as a "fortress versus frontier mind-set."

The taxi-cab industry and Mears Transportation, which controls the Orlando market, "see Florida as a fortress that needs to be protected while Uber and Lyft see Florida as frontier to be explored,'' Brandes said. "It's a lot easier to be a fortress business in the legislative process than it is to be a frontier business. They have long history and Uber was not a company five years ago."

He said he is hoping that legislators learn to value ideas as much as money in the process. "Half the Senate couldn't spell Uber last year,'' he said. "We're moving the needle."

Oliva noted that the one bill the Legislature is constitutionally required to pass — the appropriations act containing the budget — is stalled over an intractable divide over health care funding and that, he said, is evidence that money interests are not in control of the agenda.

The Senate's budget includes $2.8 billion for a plan to use Medicaid-expansion money from the federal Affordable Health Care Act, to help lower-income Floridians buy private insurance, while the House rejects that plan as perpetuating a failed program.

"If special interests had their way, we'd be expanding Medi­caid,'' Oliva said. "That is far and away the priority of hospitals and the Chambers of Commerce."

Indeed, hospitals contributed more than $3.9 million this election cycle, not including money funneled by them into political committees run by business groups such as the Associated Industries of Florida, which made contributions on their behalf.

"The idea that special interests get their way works when our interests align with their agenda, but when we don't, what's the answer then?" Oliva asked.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, disagrees that expanding Medicaid is buckling under special-interest pressure, and he notes the answer may come in the second half of session.

"The Senate's ready to help cover people who need insurance," he said. "We're looking at all options to address that.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.