Big donations didn't all win big results from Florida Legislature

Published Mar. 18, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — It was a lucrative year for Florida legislators who collected more than $28.5 million for their political committees in the six months before their annual session and when it was over, many of the special interests that raised the money — from sugar farmers and utilities to marijuana farmers and charter school companies — could point to tangible rewards.

For others, like the gaming industry, which spent more than $3 million on legislators and the governor, or the oil and gas industry, which spent nearly $500,000 trying to authorize fracking, their priorities landed in the ditch.

"You probably had some very unhappy lobbyists and special interests — not because they didn't do well but because they didn't do as well as they were used to doing," said Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee.

A proposal to ratify the gaming compact between the Seminole Tribe and Gov. Rick Scott was left incomplete amid industry infighting over how far to let the pari-mutuel industry expand. And a plan to regulate fracking and prevent local governments from banning it also hit the skids amid intense community opposition in an election year.

Oliva said that the mixed results show that legislators "did a good job of pushing back" the agendas of the special interests, even as their political committees accepted millions of dollars in contributions.

"We have to understand, special interests will never cease," Oliva said, "and to some degree they shouldn't because people need to have their interests represented in government. But when that balance becomes too heavy, it is incumbent upon us to set it back to its proper balance."

It's a theme incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and Oliva, his successor, hope to make the centerpiece of the next four years as they try to move to a system in which the agendas of the "special interests are going to be measured on their merit."

But for legislators who all must run for re-election this year there is an upside to killing a bill feverishly sought by deep-pocketed interests. Failure is rarely permanent for the most powerful in Tallahassee, and the delay provides an opportunity for lawmakers to collect more cash from those interest groups before Election Day.

"If it keeps the status quo, both sides are not going to be irritated," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, who serves the Democrats' policy chairman. "That helps when you're trying to raise millions of dollars to put into shadow political organizations."

Here are how some of the biggest corporate donors fared this session:


One of the largest single donors was U.S. Sugar. The Clewiston-based agricultural giant gave $2.3 million to legislative political committees, Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commission Adam Putnam. All agricultural interests, including U.S. Sugar, gave more than $4 million. Their top priority was a water policy bill that was among the first to pass and has been signed by the governor.

Among the provisions in the lengthy new law is a measure that directs state water management districts to manage the water in Lake Okeechobee in a way that favors agriculture's need for irrigation, over the goals of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which by federal law must manage the water for public health and safety.

It's a subtle change but one that is designed to fit a longer narrative over the "fight of the future which is the control of the water in Lake Okeechobee," said Eric Draper of Florida Audubon, which took no position on the bill.

U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez praised passage of the water bill and the Legacy Florida Act, which will dedicate up to $200 million a year for Everglades restoration.

"It was a relatively quiet session," she said. "Our focus remains on farming and continuing to promote the sustainability and restoration of the water bodies near where we live, work and farm."

"It may have been a quiet session, but sugar has a five-year playbook," Draper said. "They are planting the seeds for the next fight."

The conflict has begun to play out with the governor's criticism of the Army Corps of Engineers' handling of the releases from Lake Okeechobee, he said.

"The corps is just going by the book, by the regulations, but sugar will criticize the lake over the next couple of years. They will build a story that legislators will believe that the corps is the villain and the victims are the coastal estuaries, and the solution is to turn Lake Okeechobee into a deep-water reservoir. There is only one beneficiary of that and that is sugar cane irrigation."

Another agriculture giant, Alico, gave $668,000 to lawmakers and stands to benefit from a $42 million budget item intended to pay land owners to hold water on their land as part of the Everglades restoration. The company has a proposal that would have taxpayers pay the company $12 million to store water from the Caloosahatchee River and the proviso language in the budget could pave the way.


The state's largest utilities, Florida Power & Light ($6.1 million) and Duke Energy ($1.7 million), were big donors before session began. They steered millions to a ballot campaign aimed at keeping a pro-solar initiative off the ballot, and about $2.3 million went to legislative committees of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

They won the passage of legislation to require local governments to pay for relocation of utility lines when that is needed for things like road projects. An attempt to make the Public Service Commission more accountable was killed, and perennial efforts to open the state to more renewable energy never got a hearing.

Their winning streak came to an end, however, on their five-year effort to block a proposal to allow businesses that install solar and other renewable energy devices to receive tax breaks for 20 years. This year solar succeeded, as the bill by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers passed unanimously in both chambers.

However, it was only a partial victory. Lawmakers also passed legislation to delay implementation of the measure until 2018 if voters approve it, giving the power industry another session to weaken the provisions.

"Surviving to live another day is better than not, but we didn't have a choice in that," said Susan Glickman, Florida Director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy which promoted the proposal. "A similar measure for residential homeowners was passed by voters in 2008 and it took five years for the Legislature to implement it."

"I give enormous credit to the lawmakers who are ultimately saying enough is enough and are standing up for consumer interests," she said.

Brandes said he was surprised at the widespread support for the bill after so many years of hurdles. "This one is going to propel us forward, years ahead, and make us a leader in the country instead of a laggard," he said.

• Dental: Miami-based MCNA Dental gave $732,000 to lawmakers and, after years of trying, succeeded at getting passage of a bill to allow Medicaid dental providers to bypass the requirements of the state's managed care program. The company hired former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to lobby Gov. Rick Scott early in the session.

• Charter schools: Charter schools, for-profit schools and privately managed schools gave $484,000 to lawmakers and got access to more state money for capital improvements. Legislators gave greater weight to charter schools that serve mostly poor students or those with disabilities, and subjected them to more accountability, but critics say the changes are not stringent enough to safeguard public money going to the privately managed schools.

• Marijuana: Costa Farms, the giant Miami-based grower of fruits and vegetables which is the largest of the five companies to be awarded a license to grow marijuana for medical purposes, became a big player quickly, contributing $369,000 to legislators and the governor. It wants to expand the legal pot market, and lawmakers did that by allowing terminally ill patients to have access to marijuana of all potencies.

• Styrofoam: Publix weighed in with $1 million, lobbying lawmakers to pass legislation that would pre-empt local governments from enacting bans on Styrofoam containers used to package food and other products. The bill, which was signed last week by the governor, allows seven South Florida cities that adopted bans before January 2016 to keep them in place but communities like Coral Gables and Orlando, which adopted bans this year or are in the process of adopting bans, would have their measures reversed.

• Police radios: This was round two in an ongoing turf battle between Motorola Corp. ($128,000) and Melbourne-based Harris Corp. ($244,000) over a multi-billion dollar contract involving the state's purchase of law enforcement radios set for 2021.

Last year, at the insistence of House leadership, lawmakers inserted into the budget $7 million to "refresh" the state's existing radios, even though no state agency requested their radios be replaced. This year, the House insisted on allocating another $7 million for more radios. Senate leaders objected, concerned it could disadvantage other companies in the competitive bidding process, but the House prevailed and the money remained.

• Ride sharing: Sometimes the payoff for corporate contributors is what doesn't get passed. Mears Transportation, whose president, Paul Mears III, is one of Senate President Andy Gardiner's lifelong friends, won a victory for the second year in a row when the Senate killed a bill that would have blocked local governments from regulating popular ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft. The company has been a long-time supporter of Gardiner's, giving more than $150,000 to the Republican Party in the years he was in leadership, and $64,000 to the legislative political committees in the last year.

Brandes, who was among the sponsors of the ride-share bill, said he wasn't surprised but predicted Uber and Lyft will wait Gardiner out.

"We kind of knew going in, with the relationships, what that looked like," he said. "Once regime change comes, I think you'll see a significant shift in policy."

So what is the message legislators intend to send to lobbyist and special interests this election cycle?

"They should continue to contribute because the overall environment, and the policies that we are actively pursuing, are helping the state,'' Oliva said.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.