Things Change for Tallahassee Lobbyists on Jan. 1; New Legislation Bans Practically All Gifts -- Food and Drink, Too -- to Legislators

Article excerpt

Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING

TALLAHASSEE -- "We've got to go Dutch."

That's Gov. Jeb Bush's prediction for the new reality in Tallahassee starting Jan. 1, when a historic ethics crackdown will try to ban wining-and-dining between the legislators responsible for Florida's budgets and laws and the lobbyists who try to influence them.

A sweeping law banning nearly all gifts, including food and drink, passed the Legislature on Thursday and should, Bush said, force more accountability on both sides of the process.

Bush hailed the bill as "fantastic" and said he would sign it.

It was indeed a notable step for a state with 2,200 lobbyists and 160 legislators -- a ratio of nearly 14-to-1. The law passed the House 112-6 and the Senate 36-3, with 14 of 15 Northeast Florida legislators supporting it. Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Green Cove Springs, missed the vote but supported earlier versions of the bill.

It represents the most sweeping crackdown since a 1991 ethics scandal in which 24 lawmakers were charged with taking gifts from lobbyists without disclosing them. The list included the late Bill Bankhead and Ander Crenshaw, then senators from the First Coast, each of whom pleaded no-contest and paid $325 in fines and court costs.

That scandal led to a law that requires stronger disclosure requirements. Legislators currently must report any gift worth more than $25 and cannot accept anything over $100.

The new ban represented perhaps the biggest story out of the Capitol at week's end despite being barely present at the week's start. Legislators held a four-day special session to focus on Medicaid reform and slot machine regulation, but House Speaker Allan Bense stole the spotlight by proposing the ban first suggested by Rep. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

Lobbyists are easily overlooked because of the nature of their behind-the-scenes work. But legislators acknowledged the lobbyists wield enormous influence over the laws, policies and budgets that come out of the capital.

"Politics is a relationship business, and people who have the ability to develop the relationships are the ones that have the advantage in the process," said Senate President Tom Lee. "So by making it less palatable for elected officials to develop those relationships with lobbyists, we even out the playing field a little bit for the average citizen who doesn't have the opportunity to take their legislator to dinner once a week."

The blanket ban on gift-giving actually goes beyond the Legislature to apply to any state employee. It also forces lobbyists to file quarterly reports revealing a range of their fees and opens them to random state audits. Monitoring and enforcement will come through those methods, and penalties include fines and possible lobby license suspensions.

Some loopholes were left. For example, lobbyists can get around the ban by donating money to political parties that could be used to reimburse meal costs. …