Tallahassee Restaurateurs Bear the Brunt of the Legislative Gift Ban
Food for ThoughtTallahassee restaurateurs bear the brunt of the legislative gift banBy Caroline Brewster
EACH SPRING, THE CAPITAL CITY COMES ALIVE. Dogwoods bloom against a backdrop of Spanish moss, warmer weather beckons residents to explore their neighborhoods and legislators and lobbyists swarm Tallahassee’s downtown like bees to the hive of state government.
During the nine weeks of the legislative session, held between March and May each year, the city’s population seems to double as lobbyists and lawmakers bustle about in an effort to serve the interests of their clients and the state, respectively. And in the midst of it all is Adams Street, with its collection of eateries that sit only a stone’s throw from where Florida’s political elite mold state policy.
Tallahassee business owners have traditionally welcomed the boom as an opportunity to pull their profits out of a winter slumber. Many restaurateurs, storeowners and hoteliers count on the added revenue during the session to provide a cushion for their businesses to carry them through the rest of the year.
Restaurants and hotels stock specialty items and increase staff sizes, taxi drivers and caterers brace themselves for a busy season, and students seize the opportunity to make extra cash while getting a chance to learn about the machinations of state government.
The legislative session helps grease the wheels of commerce in Tallahassee, and anything that hinders the flow of revenue raises red flags to business owners as a direct threat to their profit margin.
In 2005, Tallahassee business owners stood at full attention as Florida’s ban on legislative gifting was enacted during a special session, causing many to wonder what the future would hold for local commerce. Designed to keep lawmakers from abusing their positions by accepting gifts that might sway their votes, the ban requires lobbyists to provide full disclosure of any money they are paid by clients and prohibits anything of value from changing hands between lobbyists and lawmakers.
The ban created a stir of dissent among lobbyists, lawmakers and business owners, and led to a push for repeal. But in March, the Florida Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality.
The Adams Street corridor, a small cobblestoned street that sits in the shadow of the Capitol complex, has long depended on the influx of revenue the legislative session brings to the area. Its restaurants and bars teem with patrons while lawmakers are in session.
“For local restaurants, session is like Christmas is to the mall. It’s our season to shine,” says Andy Reiss, owner of Andrew’s Capital Grill & Bar and Andrew’s 228 on Adams Street. “During session, we hit the ground running. Local businesses are tuned in. They are on it when it comes to knowing when the legislators are here. You can build up a good local business, but the legislators are still the gravy. They are the icing on the cake.”
A longtime Tallahassee resident, Reiss has survived the ups and downs of the restaurant business for more than 30 years and has seen his fair share of government in action. Policymakers who flock to his politically themed menu on their lunch breaks choose from a variety of meals that include the “Gra-HAM” burger (named after former governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham), the “Capital Press” club sandwich and the “House of Reps” salad.
Reiss says that although the gifting ban has affected his business, it hasn’t been as devastating as some might think.
“We were definitely affected. My catering business took a hit, but as a restaurant owner you have to deal with it,” Reiss says. “The check averages went down, but it didn’t kill us. They still have to eat.”
Dave Ericks, owner of Clyde’s and Costello’s on Adams Street and a veteran lobbyist, paints a somewhat bleaker picture of the gift ban’s effects.
“It drastically set us back the first year. Happy hour got killed,” he says. “We’ve gotten a little better, but I’d still say that we’ve never recovered.”
One big difference: Ericks doesn’t stock up on as many fine wines, high-end brands of Scotch and cigars as he once did.
After the ban was enacted in 2005, catering at Clyde’s and Costello’s dropped by half. Cuts in catering events and the loss of the happy hour crowd meant staff reductions for the longtime local watering hole.
“We don’t staff as many people anymore. We used to staff 30 people during session; now we are down to two a day,” Ericks says. “It’s unfortunate, because most of those employees are college students that are in need of a job.”
Ericks says he feels the ban has created a sense of fear among legislators and those lobbying them.
“There has always been a belief that any legislator will do anything for you because you’ve bought them a drink or a meal, and that simply isn’t true,” he says. “It’s naive to think that you can sway a legislator with a dinner or drink. That type of thinking is what got us here.”
Because he believes an “implied fear” has kept legislators from speaking out, Ericks insists that the gift ban hinders the ability of people to go out and meet lobbyists, staff and legislators.
“It used to be that staff, in my opinion, would go out to different functions to network for a job and really get to know the people they work with,”
he says. “Now they are limited in their ability to make friends and network. They just don’t feel they can do that anymore, and it’s hurt that sense of camaraderie.”
Neither Ericks nor Reiss feels that legislators should receive lavish gifts, but both believe that the ban is stricter than it should be. Reiss says he worries that civic or charitable organizations are taking the brunt.
“We used to have 200 to 300 restaurateurs coming for Hospitality Day; now we have 30,” Reiss says. “And with things like Dade Days, no one wants to come up if they can’t have a beer, so we’re getting less participation in government.”
Ericks agrees that functions put on by charities should not be affected by the gift ban and that legislative staff also should not be included. As chairman of the downtown planning authority, Ericks notes the effect on downtown development.
“We have our ups and downs downtown, but nothing is really down here yet except for government,” he said. “The ban has slowed up support of the Tallahassee downtown thriving. It’s more expensive to be here.”
LEGISLATIVE GIFT BAN TIMELINE
2005 The legislative gifting ban is enacted during a special session.
2006 The ban takes effect.
2007 Circuit Judge Terry Lewis of Leon County rules that the law doesn’t infringe upon the rights of lobbyists. The ruling is appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta.
2007 Leon County requests that Florida State University work up an estimated economic impact of the gifting ban on Tallahassee and Leon County. The study, prepared by hospitality professor Mark A. Bonn, shows that Tallahassee and Leon County lost more than $4.1 million because of a decline in lobbyist spending during March and April of 2007.
2009 The Court of Appeals in January determines that the law is not “vague or overbroad” and does not violate U.S. constitutional provisions. The court does, however, rule that questions over whether the ban was enacted using correct legislative procedures should be determined by the Florida Supreme Court.
2009 The Florida Supreme Court in January hears oral arguments on the case and upholds the constitutionality of the gift ban in a March 19, 2009 decision.