TALLAHASSEE — A legal challenge could complicate the future of Florida’s voter-approved, six-year lobbying ban, a long-planned change that has likely been responsible for an exodus of high-profile public officials ahead of its taking effect on New Year’s Eve.
In the federal lawsuit, five elected officials in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Leon counties are seeking to block the new lobbying restrictions, which are expected to be the toughest in the country.
The new measures prohibit elected officials in the state from working as lobbyists while holding public office, and bar state and local elected officials from lobbying their state agencies or offices for six years after leaving office. Currently, there is a two-year lobbying ban. The law also applies to some holders of appointed rather than elected positions.
“It is certainly possible — in fact, I expect — that before the end of the day today [Friday], you are going to hear more people resigning from public office across the state,” said Scott A. Hiaasen, an attorney with the law firm of Coffey Burlington, which is among those seeking to block the new lobbying restrictions.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit — Miami-Dade Commissioner Rene Garcia, South Miami Mayor Javier Fernandez, Miami Shores Council Member Crystal Wagar, Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard and Leon County Commissioner William “Bill” Proctor — were seeking to temporarily block the measures from taking effect on Saturday. Wagar resigned Friday.
But at an emergency hearing Thursday, Miami U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom denied the request, Hiaasen said in an interview. The court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case on Jan. 27.
In the meantime, a number of public officials across the state will be forced to decide whether to quit public office or their private jobs, Hiaasen said. (Hiaasen is a former Miami Herald reporter.)
Garcia and Fernandez did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.
On Friday evening, after the story was initially published, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Board member Lubby Navarro resigned her elected post, according to a letter obtained by the Herald. Navarro cited the new lobbying ban as the reason for her departure, adding that it was a move she needed to make to comply with the law.
“It has been my honor and privilege to serve the residents of District 7, as their school board member since February 2015,” Navarro wrote.
Fernandez, who was elected as South Miami’s mayor in November, told the Herald he sought legal counsel and will not be resigning as mayor and will not be leaving the law firm Sanchez-Medina, Gonzalez, Quesada, Lage, Gomez & Machado, where he is a partner.
Fernandez frequently represents clients before county and municipal boards and agencies, the lawsuit says. But Fernandez said that moving forward, he plans to have a firewall between him and the firm’s lobbying and will handle other quasi-judicial and administrative matters.
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Garcia, who according to the lawsuit recently co-founded New Century Partnership, a business consulting firm that provides lobbying and government affairs services, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A defense for the revolving door
In the federal lawsuit, the local officials argue that lobbying has “unfairly become encrusted with insidious connotations,” but that at its core, it is meant to “ensure the exchange of information and ideas between government decision makers and segments of the public who may be directly impacted.”
They further argue that the new state law implementing the state constitutional amendment, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2018, is too broad and that it violates their constitutional rights to freedom of speech.
“Lobbying goes to the heart of the democratic process,” the complaint contends. “It is for this very reason that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution expressly protects the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, along with the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.”
In the legal challenge, plaintiffs said the lobbying ban could have a chilling effect on public service in state and local governments.
“Public service is already exacting enough for those willing to make the commitment to hold public office, and it is already far from easy to attract honorable candidates to dedicate their time to public service,” the lawsuit contends. “A constitutional provision that destroys careers and livelihoods by unnecessary and overbroad restrictions is manifestly contrary to the public interest.”
Many elected offices in Florida are part-time positions, which require public servants to have other jobs to make a living, Hiaasen noted.
A ‘pressure point’
At the state level, Gov. Ron DeSantis has suggested that changes in that law had become a “pressure point” for some high-level officials in his administration.
“It’s kind of a deadline for people in some of these positions because there’s different things that are changing in the law in what you can do in the future,” DeSantis said at a news conference on Dec. 16. “So we knew that would potentially be a pressure point.”
While none have explicitly stated the lobbying ban as the reason for their departure, two agency heads in the DeSantis administration and Florida’s insurance commissioner announced and left their posts in the weeks leading up to the implementation of the new lobbying restrictions.
Preventing lawmakers from lobbying for six years, the longest ban in the country, was the idea of former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, as a member of the Constitution Revision Commission, a panel that meets every 20 years to propose amendments to the state constitution. Gaetz is the father of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.
The proposal came after several legislators made careers out of serving the Legislature part of the time but working as a lobbyist for special interests and clients before county commissions and Congress. Beginning in 2023, that would be illegal.
Lobbying firms also like to hire former House and Senate leaders because of the power they wield in Florida’s top-down legislative structure.
Miami Herald reporter Sommer Brugal contributed to this report.