Campaign money doesn't always buy happiness for big Florida donors

Published July 16, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — Health insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida gave more money to Florida campaigns than any other single entity in the 2012 election cycle — $4.8 million — and the company is already the largest contributor in the current cycle, a Times/Herald analysis has found.

Company officials say the contributions, which include $867,000 sent to Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature since January, are an investment in like-minded candidates as Blue Cross works toward implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

But when it comes to the company's top priority — the expansion of Medicaid to cover 1-million more uninsured Floridians — the health care giant's out-sized investment has fallen flat.

Legislators walked away from extending Medicaid coverage to Florida residents at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level after House leaders fiercely resisted the option. Blue Cross Blue Shield, doing business as Florida Blue, contracts with the state to run a Medicaid managed care program, which was expected to get $50 billion over 10 years through Medicaid expansion.

"With regard to Medicaid, we do have a difference of opinion with a lot of the folks we have supported in the past,'' said Jason Altmire, vice president of public policy government and community affairs for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida, and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. He said the company hopes to come back next session and renew the pitch for Medicaid expansion.

But Blue Cross Blue Shield is not the only company to invest heavily in the political process, only to have its top legislative priority thwarted in the past year.

Hospitals, nursing homes and the ill-fated Internet cafe industry all made heavy investments in the governor and legislators this year but went home empty.

Meanwhile, other large donors, such as U.S. Sugar, the Florida Optometry Association and the Florida Medical Association saw their political investments pay off as lawmakers passed long-sought legislation to make it easier for them to do business in Florida.

A common denominator for most of those turned away: the Florida House, where most of the initiatives of the top contributors went to die.

"I didn't keep track; I don't know if we were responsible for killing those bills or not,'' said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "If it goes against our principles — like Medicaid expansion — I don't care how much they gave. It has to be right for Florida."

By contrast, big contributors seemed to more easily move their agenda through the Senate.

A bill to make it more difficult to sue nursing homes for neglect was a top priority of the nursing home industry, which gave more than $1 million in the last cycle. The bill passed every committee in the Senate but was never heard in the House.

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The Internet cafe industry started the session with high hopes after having donated more than $1.4 million to legislators over the last two years. The House had passed legislation last year to outlaw their machines, but the Senate resisted.

But things changed when authorities arrested the owners and operators of Allied Veterans of Florida, a purported charity organization that officials said secretly operated electronic slot machines across the state.

In other cases, top contributors succeeded by playing defense, fending off legislation they opposed.

Florida Power & Light, which gave $2.6 million in the 2012 election cycle and is the second top contributor this year with $717,000, succeeded in persuading legislators to water down legislation that would repeal the fee attached to electric bills that pays for controversial nuclear power plants before they are built.

Disney, which gave $2.7 million in the 2012 campaign season, persuaded lawmakers to pass a bill that would override efforts by Orlando officials to enact local wage and benefits laws.

And Blue Cross Blue Shield succeeded in persuading legislators to kill a proposal to eliminate a tax credit for the insurance industry and use the money to roll back increases in fees for drivers' licenses and auto tags, a proposal that would have cost Florida Blue policyholders $35 million a year, Altmire said.

Both Florida Blue and FPL are among the top contributors who have also steered money to Scott's political committee as it awaits important decisions from the executive branch.

Two weeks after Scott announced his support for Medicaid expansion, Blue Cross Blue Shield sent his political committee, Let's Get to Work, $237,500.

Shortly after the Public Service Nominating Council announced its schedule for selecting the candidates for the Public Service Commission (Scott can appoint two seats), FPL sent $250,000.

And Heritage Property & Casualty Insurance, which was given $52 million to take over 60,000 policies from Citizens Property Insurance in a controversial deal, sent the governor $110,000.

Weatherford said top contributors don't always win.

"What most people want is an opportunity to tell their story,'' he said. "They're making an investment in you. You're not making an investment in them."