Time to repeal lobbyist compensation reporting law

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When lobbyists Ron Book and Guy Spearman filed suit in 2006 to block enforcement of a law requiring lobbyists to report how much they are paid, it probably never occurred to them that the compensation reports they sought to keep private would one day be used as marketing tools.

Book, Spearman, and other members of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists failed to block implementation of this do-gooder legislation and so, each quarter, the state’s extensive roster of lobbying practices must report to the state how much their clients pay them.

There are very few, if any, other professions that are required to provide this kind of disclosure, even those connected at some level to the public interest. Legal defense firms do not disclose how much they are paid to defend their clients against state prosecution. Medical concerns with revenue streams from federal, state, and local governments do not have to report how much their doctors earn.

Yet lobbyists, perceived to have their hands entwined on the strings of power, must share with the world what they charge their clients to pull those strings.

The whole affair is rather gauche. 

What’s making it all even more unseemly is that political blogs and traditional media track the compensation reports with the fervor that fantasy football fans follow Peyton Manning’s quarterback rating.

It’s little wonder that the quarterly filings are at the center of the most insider-y of debates raging in the state capital.

And the fact is, lobbyists are not under much pressure to open their books to prove they’re reporting accurately.

Quite simply, there has not been the will to regularly audit the reports. Urged on by Senate President Don Gaetz, legislators have been tasked with determining the best practices for conducting the audits which were suppose to have been first conducted six years ago.

The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee was told that the random audits of some two dozen firms could cost the state more than $1 million, according to Aaron Deslatte of the Orlando Sentinel. That sparked criticism from some on the House-Senate panel, while returning the issue to where Book, Spearman, et al were driving it: stopping the legislation. 

Because if there’s not the will to regularly audit, then repeal the law.

What was to be a triumph for transparent democracy is, without audits, just another questionable bureaucratic exercise based on the principle of “trust but don’t verify.”

Gaetz and Weatherford were wise to float the trial balloon, but it’s clear there’s no broader legislative will to keep it afloat.  

“What benefit are my taxpayers going to gain from having this information and is it worth the price we’re going to have to pay to get it?” asked Sen. Alan Hays, who compared the auditing of private businesses to inspecting chicken farmers or office suppliers.

“Do we need to know how many chicken eggs he counted last night?”

Hays’ sentiments were echoed in a rare moment of bipartisan spirit by Sen. Jeremy Ring, who broached the idea of filing a bill to repeal just the auditing requirement. 

“I just don’t think the Legislature should be auditing a private business,” said Ring. 

Eliminating just the auditing requirement is the worst of all possibilities. Either the entire requirement of fee disclosure should be repealed, or the audits should begin straightaway.

Good luck with that, though. Unless the audits involve actual examination of a firm’s books — and not just its contracts or invoices — it won’t be known whether the audits provide an accurate accounting.

Then again, the issue with the law is not compliance, it’s whether some firms are cooking their books to appear more attractive to potential clients. 

“The problem is that the competitive nature of the lobbying business got a … shot in the arm when the firm compensation reports began to be required,” said Jennifer Green, president of Liberty Partners of Tallahassee and past chair of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, to Deslatte. “Before, lobbying success was measured by how many clients a firm had listed on [its] lobbyist registration. Now, compensation reports can encourage firms to use news articles as marketing tools.”

Green’s analysis raises the question: What would be the penalty for a firm which over-reported its earnings? Probably the same punishment given to those who pay too much on their taxes. 

The original purpose of the law was to reveal how much a company or industry was spending to influence government. That purpose is thwarted when it’s reduced to something like a quarterly earnings report for Wall Street.  

It’s time to embrace reality and get rid of the law.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.