Would it really cost more than $1 million to audit lobbyist compensation reports?

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When Senate Bill 6-B was passed in 2005, instituting Florida’s lobbyist compensation reporting requirements, the intent was to audit as well as require such reports.

That’s never happened. Audits have three obstacles: disinterest and conflicts among auditors, and costs to the state.

At one point prior to 2010, a joint legislature committee submitted a request calling for 10 auditing firms to complete the probes, but only one firm replied.  Many auditing firms have conflicts and relationships with lobby firms. And the costs to the state for paying for audits are high.

The intent of transparency is to let the public connect the dots between how much lobbyists are getting paid and advocacy on particular issues.  But are costly audits of three percent of lobby firms the way to get there?  

To Democrat Sen. Jeremy Ring and Republican Sen. Alan Hays, ­­­­­­­­ it would make more sense to repeal the auditing requirement than to see it through.

“Sometimes I think the Legislature goes a little too far on stuff like that. It’s a private business,” Ring said in an Orlando Sentinel report. “They’re the sales people. We’re the buyers. The onus is on us” to act responsibly.

To Hays, the issue is that of cost: will taxpayers benefit from having the information and is it worth the price the Legislature would have to spend to get it?

In 2005, Senate staff estimated that audits would cost between $360,000 and $425,000, plus travel and incidental costs. In 2008, a rough estimate placed travel costs at $475,000, bringing the total to about $800,000.

Today, the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee estimates that conducting such audits would total about $1.2 million, including hourly rates of pay and auditor travel.  This would cover 13 legislative lobbying firms and 11 executive branch firms, for a total of 24.

The irony is that while audits were intended to catch folks who fail to report compensation, insiders are more worried that firms may exaggerate compensation by double counting fees in legislative and executive branch reports.

If that possibility is of public concern, revised instructions or forms may do the trick with no further effort.

The prospect of $1.2 million — and likely more — being spent to capture a slim percent of overall activity may be a tough pill for budget writers to swallow.  Especially when it seems that the most it would hamper is bragging.