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Martin Dyckman: Richard Corcoran brings wisdom to reign in Tallahassee lobbyists

in Statewide/Top Headlines by

On one of my earliest days covering the Florida Legislature, I was walking along the main hall a few feet behind Jack Lee, the lobbyist for Associated Industries, when a document dropped out of his portfolio. He didn’t seem to notice, so I picked it up, intending to return it to him.

I barely had time to realize that it was an amendment form for a Senate bill, neatly typed in the proper places, when he turned and snatched it from my hands with an unprintable curse.

I had assumed that legislators wrote their own bills and amendments. How naive.

Note, though, that I have identified him as the lobbyist for Associated Industries. Although it was the most muscular business lobby in Tallahassee, it made do with just Lee. So did nearly all the heavy hitters.

They worked together, of course, whenever something came along, like Gov. Reubin Askew‘s proposed corporate income tax in 1971, to threaten their common interests. They were all watching from the galleries as it passed one house and then the other. They were confident that they wouldn’t lose.

“They lied to us!” one of them shouted out as the Senate’s tote board signaled they were wrong about that.

Much has changed about lobbying, rarely for the better, in the ensuing 45 years. On the positive side, lobbyists now must report what they are paid and spend. Gift-taking restrictions put at least one restaurant out of business. But the worst of it is that the lobbyists now routinely work in teams — often very large teams.

Where there only a few hundred in the 1960s and 1970s, there were 1,914 registered during the 2016 session. That’s nearly 12 for each legislator. They represented 3,893 principals ranging from charities, cities, and trade associations to America’s largest corporations.

AT&T, for example, boasted 71 lobbyists last spring. Associated Industries, host to a lavish party before every session, hired 45.

Each lobbyist, in turn, had other clients. Ronald L. Book, whose influence is legendary, had 101.

How do the various teams keep from stumbling over one another? How do they keep from crushing legislators under a press of bodies? Considering how the Legislature is often a multi-ring circus, with simultaneous action in multiple committees or on both House and Senate floors, how does one person represent 101 interests?

To ask those questions is to see the wisdom of incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s proposal to ban lobbyists from sending text messages to representatives while they are in committee or in session.

The smartphone is another of those negative developments since the 1960s. The lobbyists don’t use theirs just to coordinate with other members of their teams and flash warnings when something unfriendly pops up. Each team has a designated leader to watch what’s coming up. There are services that monitor all the bills and amendments for them. Then the team members assigned to their respective lawmakers can use their iPhones, Androids, or BlackBerrys to pull their strings without ever being seen.

If Corcoran prevails, as he surely will, the lobbyists will have to go back to doing that the old way — by sending written notes into the chamber or sitting in the gallery to wag hand signals. It works, but not as effortlessly, efficiently, or secretly. We reporters loved to scan the gallery for those signals or stand by the chamber doors to see who was handing notes to the sergeants at arms.

There’s a lot else to like in the reforms that Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, is expected to propose. One of the most significant would require a lobbyist to report each bill, amendment, or appropriation that he or she is trying to influence.

So when some turkey appears as if by magic in an appropriations committee conference report, it will be evident who put it there.

Corcoran is not so likely to get approval for a constitutional amendment requiring ex-legislators to wait six years, rather than only two as now, before lobbying their former colleagues.

For one thing, nearly everyone in the term-limited Florida Legislature is either thinking about becoming a lobbyist later or has at least thought about it.

For another, a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in each house, and that is a bridge very, very far.

But it will be fun to see who votes how.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in suburban Asheville, North Carolina

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