Lobbying Rules Before Court This Winter

Florida lobbyists soon will get their day in court in a bid to overturn an almost three-year-old state law requiring them to disclose who pays them and how much, and also bars gifts to legislators.

The Florida Supreme Court has set Jan. 6 for arguments in the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists’ challenge of the law, pushed through the Legislature during a December 2005 special session.

The 450-member association contends the measure violates the state’s separation of powers doctrine, was improperly enacted, and infringes on the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.

"I think we’re all adjusting to the new law,” conceded Carl Adams, FAPL president, who retired in August after lobbying for utilities, pari-mutuels and other industries at the Capitol for 37 years. “But that still doesn’t mean that it’s right.”

Government watchdogs say the Florida law is among the toughest in the nation. And although it hasn’t exactly turned Tallahassee into a ghost town, the measure has affected restaurants, bars, florists and other businesses that used to profit from the expense account trade in a state capital where lobbyists outnumber Florida’s 160 legislators by more than 12-to-1.

A 2007 study conducted for the Leon County Tourist Development Council, found that Tallahassee and the surrounding county lost more than $4.1 million in lobbyist spending during the March and April legislative session.

“That’s a significant amount of money lost from the local economy” said Mark Bonn, a Florida State University business professor who led the study.

But reports filed under the law’s disclosure requirements also have revealed that capital lobbying is a more than $200 million industry — one that shows few signs so far of being hurt by the global economic crisis.

“Local governments may be tightening up,” said Guy Spearman, a veteran lobbyist who, with fellow lobbyist Ron Book, have separately joined with FAPL in the lawsuit. “But not one of my clients has cut back, because they know that when things get as bad as they are now, legislators may start looking at them for ways to raise revenue.”

The disclosure law allows fees to be reported in a range. According to 2007 reports, the last full year available, Spearman earned about $2 million in fees. Book took in an average $5.2 million. Adams said the association has so far spent less than $10,000 pursuing its lawsuit, which has already drawn a mixed ruling in federal court.

The legal assault, itself, is a sign that the measure must be working, said former Senate President Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who pushed lawmakers to pass the gift ban and disclosure law in 2005.

“This is a vast improvement on the culture of back-scratching that has gone on in our political process for decades” said Lee, who lost a 2006 bid for the Cabinet post of chief financial officer to Democrat Alex Sink.

“You can see by the legal challenge just how frustrating it must be for those who do business in the bars and restaurants to continue to curry favor,” he added.

The gift ban and disclosure law was approved during a rocky time for both Tallahassee and Washington. Earlier in 2005, four state legislators had traveled to Canada on a $48,000 golf and sightseeing junket paid for by a gambling company. The nation’s capital also was embroiled in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

As in most capitals, lobbyists and legislators in Tallahassee have a long interlocking history, and one that periodically flares into scandal.

Florida’s biggest tax increase, the 1987 services tax, was written over pizza and beer during a closed-door huddle with legislators gathered at a lobbyist’s Tallahassee townhouse. And in 1991, two dozen legislators pleaded no contest to criminal misdemeanor charges for failing to report costly trips and gifts provided by lobbyists.

The lobbyists’ lawsuit initially went to federal court, which ruled that the state has a ?compelling interest in imposing regulations on paid lobbyists.?

But in April, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the complaint to the Florida Supreme Court to decide questions involving Florida law.

Adams and others say that while most lobbyists welcome the new limits on wining and dining, saying it only saves them money, they are concerned chiefly about provisions of the disclosure law.

Lobbyists fear the measure allows for stiff penalties to be imposed with little chance for appeal if reporting errors are revealed following audits. They also say the measure was approved improperly during the 2005 special session and infringes on the state Supreme Court’s authority to regulate law practices.

Another central charge in the complaint is that the law unconstitutionally gives the Legislature the power to interpret, enforce and pass judgment in matters that normally should be divided between separate branches of government.

“That’s called a Star Chamber, and that’s not right," said Mark Herron, FAPL’s attorney.

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