Money grubbing raised to a high art

Published Feb. 11, 2013

In three weeks the 2013 session of the Florida Legislature will commence, otherwise known as the annual gathering of beagles rolling over to have their tummies rubbed by the Capitol's Sugar Daddy class.

Bless their hearts for trying, but do you get the feeling House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz are whistling past the ATM when they pledge to impose stricter ethics rules and regulations?

Cleaning up the Ganges River would be more likely than reforming the Mongol hordes of money at play in Tallahassee. When it comes to ethics reform, Weatherford and Gaetz are dreamers and they really are the only ones.

Politicians often decry the waste and inefficiency of government. But that is an abstract concept. If you really want to see what a mosh pit of moolah Florida government has become, you need to visit Tallahassee while the Legislature is engaged in its annual toga party of special interests.

What you will witness is a Capitol rotunda teaming with armed and dangerous lobbyists wielding their juice and their checkbooks to turn Florida into the Swineshine State.

Their best intentions notwithstanding, Weatherford and Gaetz are woefully outnumbered. Sit down for this. Remain calm. As the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau's Mary Ellen Klas has reported, there are 3,235 lobbyists registered to schmooze 160 members of the Florida Legislature.

There are even more professional candymen attempting to canoodle the governor's office and state agencies, with 4,925 registered influence-peddlers roaming the executive hallways.

Since 72 percent, or $50.4 billion, of the state's $70 billion budget is set aside for contracts, it is little wonder the sway of Florida's lobbying corps is pervasive and pernicious. So much money, so little time.

There are myriad reasons for the growing ooomph of lobbyists in Tallahassee, not the least of which is no other state in the Southeast dedicates more of its budget to private contractors to provide goods and services. There are more fingers in this honey pot than at a state fair blueberry pie eating contest.

Because of term limits, the Florida Legislature has become little more than a master class of money changers, training its members how to go forth and multiply as lobbyists after they are forced out of office after eight years.

It is certainly in the selfish interests of an amateur class of elected representatives who have no clue how Tallahassee works to pay deference to lobbyists. After all, lobbyists know more about writing bills, hiding appropriations goodies and avoiding public scrutiny of favors rendered.

And the term-limited politician also knows eventually he or she will need a job.

The rogue's gallery of former lawmakers turned gladhanders is formidable. But an ideal poster child for turning one's political juice into a lucrative career as a paid huckster is former House Speaker Dean Cannon, who opened up his own lobbying business a block away from the Capitol building before his term even expired.

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You might regard this sort of thing as utterly shameless. In Tallahassee, it's considered to be astute estate planning.

By Florida's gelded ethics laws, Cannon is barred from lobbying his former colleagues in the Legislature. As Richard Nixon once said, that would be wrong. Let the snickering begin. For as a practical matter that prohibition is a distinction without a difference.

Cannon hardly took a huge gamble in going from the speakership to jumping into the ranks of the of lobbyists since he is perfectly free to bill and coo his way around governor's office and the rest of the executive branch of Florida government. After all, as the bank robber Willie Sutton once observed, that is where the money is anyway.

In any event those two years can pass pretty quickly and before you can say: "Waiter, bring my good friend Rep. Haversham another, make it a double," Cannon will be an omnipresent figure lobbying the Legislature, too.

There is a move afoot in the Legislature this session to broaden the two-year ban for former lawmakers to the executive branch as well. It's a swell idea, although — and please forgive a pinch of cynicism — you have to believe the aspiring lobbyists will figure out a way to get around the restriction.

This is Tallahassee after all, where probity goes to die.