Proposed tweaks to Florida’s lobbyist gift ban don’t go far enough

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Representative democracy requires the communication of constituent interests to elected officials, and requiring legislators to pay their own way at all community events – even when no other guests are required to do so – creates the antithetical incentive to avoid attending; not good, right? This is what some argue has happened in Florida over the past seven years, and has led the author of the state’s 2005 gift ban to propose tweaks to the law he fought to pass.

Legislative gift bans are enacted to prevent lobbyist gifts and accommodations from unjustly tipping lawmakers’ favor toward those with more to offer. But in practice, banning legislators from accepting any gift, however small, can have the adverse effect of only widening the gap between industry giants and advocates with shallower pockets.

SB 1634, sponsored this session by Sen. Tom Lee, would revise his 2005 law and permit legislators to accept nominal accommodations from lobbyists and their principals under specific circumstances.

Lee’s 2005 bill was intended to enact widespread culture change to counter, in his terms, “a whole industry being developed around enhancing your lifestyle while you’re here [in Tallahassee]” – a goal which was arguably accomplished, at least in terms of putting an end to daily catered lunches for legislators and their staff, nightly binges, lavish dinners and stacked snack bars.

The 2013 proposal seeks to make a distinction between these endemic acts and, Lee continued as quoted in a News Service of Florida article, “being home in your own district and having organizations take you to lunch at a widely attended event or gathering of some sort.”

While some lobbyists filed suit against the gift ban following its enactment, others breathed (quiet, usually private) sighs of relief, having been released from the pressure of non-stop spending and giving.   In that respect, the 2005 law may have leveled the playing field when it comes to Session lunch dates.

But nothing in the original gift ban prevents big pockets from emptying giant sums of cash into campaigns and CCEs – the donations that many argue are the real source of access – rendering free coffees or sandwiches even more benign. The combo of Florida’s current gift ban and big giving regulations may only widen the influence gap between high rollers and smaller interests.

The Senate proposal currently under consideration would allow legislators to accept meals and non-alcoholic beverages from lobbyists and principals when participating in events held by membership organizations, or if attending widely attended events.  These events would have to be accessible to the media; the cost could not be greater than $25 per person; and the legislator would have to file reports with the Senate about attending the events.

This proposal wouldn’t go very far toward permitting private lunches or even cups of coffee between advocates and legislators. And may not go very far, regardless –greater attention is on campaign finance and ethics reforms. 

We’ll see on Monday whether the Senate Ethics and Election Committee has an appetite for these changes.