Sen. Tom Lee - who has already acknowledged that his effort is likely a long shot this year - moved his rework of the state's seven-year-old "zero tolerance" gift ban through its first committee stop on Monday.
Lee is pushing through the changes to take away some of the constant criticisms that he's heard over the years since the gift ban was first passed.
These include provisions that lawmakers "can't even take a cup of coffee" or "a bottle of water" during a meeting with a lobbyist. His proposed changes would also attempt to make it easier for a lawmaker to show up at a luncheon sponsored by a hometown group.
The kicker in Lee's bill is that it would revert everything back to current law on June 30, 2015. Lee said he put these provisions in to make sure that just in case the changes he proposed turn into big loopholes the law will automatically revert back to the way it once was.
Lee's effort is a long shot because there is no House companion bill - and he's trying to get it through his first committee during the mid-way point of the session.
But it's important to recall a bit of history here to understand why - and how - Florida got to where it is now.
The state first cracked down on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers after an investigation by State Attorney Willie Meggs in the early '90s. This came in the wake of reports that lobbyists paid for trips to various exotic locations. From a Sun-Sentinel story:
``It has gone on year after year,`` said prosecutor Anthony Guarisco of legislators vacationing luxuriously at lobbyists` expense.
The seven-page report from the grand jury reads like a deluxe travelogue as it outlines where lobbyists took legislators. The destinations included Riverview Plantation, Camilla, Ga.; Monterey, Mexico; Anchorage, Alaska; Colorado; Paris; Zurich, Switzerland; and Monte Carlo, Monaco. Also on the list were several out-of-state college sports games.
Meggs wound up charging legislators for failing to report gifts worth more than $25.
State lawmakers in response to the ongoing coverage of the trips changed the law to ban all gifts worth $100 or more.
But by 2005 it was clear that a system had arisen that allowed lawmakers to still receive benefits from lobbyists. It was done in a way to sidestep disclosure requirements that mandated that lobbyists report expenditures over $25.
From a Feb. 28, 2005 Miami Herald story:
The meeting of Miami-Dade lawmakers over dinner was held at an oak-shaded French restaurant near the Capitol.
On the agenda: fighting a controversial change in school funding that could hurt urban districts.
The tab for that night at Chez Pierre: $481.89 - about $70 for each of the seven legislators in attendance. The bill was paid by Bill Rubin, a powerful lobbyist who represents, among other clients, the Broward County School Board.
Almost a year after the dinner, Rubin has yet to file the gift-disclosure form required by Florida law. Had a Miami Herald reporter not accidentally walked in on the event, the public would never have known about it.
Rubin, who did not return calls for comment, isn't alone in how he deals with Florida's disclosure requirements for lobbyists. A Herald review of three years' worth of gift-disclosure forms shows that only a few lobbyists regularly report when they hand out gifts or pay for meals worth more than $25 - the threshold for reporting for legislators or their aides.
That same story detailed that lobbyists such as Ron Book side-stepped the disclosure requirement by inviting large groups of people to receptions he paid for which brought down the per-person costs. Other lobbyists would divide the amount spent on a legislator by dividing it by the number of clients they represent.
That same year saw a series of stories in the Miami Herald about the relationship between lobbyists and legislators including:
of sushi and Chinese food greeted the political power-hitters at Sen. Alex Diaz de la
Portilla's upscale home in Tallahassee as a guitarist strummed
away and the wine and liquor from the open bar poured freely.The March 9 party was in honor of Sen. Victor Crist and his new fiancee. The main bankroller for the $5,000 tab: prominent South Florida lobbyist Bob
Levy, whose lengthy roster of clients includes the Professional Wrecker
Operators of Florida.
....Because as many as 150 people were present at the party, the event would not violate Florida's ban on gifts of more than $100 to public officials. But the party is another example of the often-hidden world in the state capital where legislators have a cozy relationship with lobbyists who represent special interests.
Or this one:
prominent Miami lobbyist, whose list of clients includes tow-truck operators,
nurses, hospitals and the New World School of the Arts, is sponsoring an
engagement party Tuesday for freshman Republican Rep. Anitere Flores.
All 25 members of the Miami-Dade County legislative delegation have been invited for cocktails and dinner at the New Chinatown Restaurant in South Miami to celebrate the upcoming wedding of the 29-year-old Flores, a lawyer who works at Florida International University
And this one:
month ago The Miami
Herald reported that (Sen. Mandy) Dawson
had sent out a letter to lobbyists asking them to help pay the $2,500 she
needed to take an economic development trip to South
Africa. In her letter on official Senate stationery, Dawson
asked lobbyists to send the money to the state's Legislative Black Caucus.
Two of the people she wrote to, including powerful South Florida lobbyist Ron Book, gave money to the caucus, as did a South Florida ophthalmologist and well-known fund-raiser.
And in the incident that helped propel the decision to push the ban during a 2005 special session:
The owner of Gulfstream Park and other racetracks across the
country paid nearly $50,000 to fly four powerful state lawmakers to the
company's headquarters in Toronto this summer, but reported the costs as a
contribution to the Republican Party of Florida.
The two-day trip in July came in the midst of an ongoing effort by track owners in Broward County to persuade state legislators to spell out when slot machines can be installed there. Broward voters approved allowing four parimutuels in the county to have slot machines, but state legislators ended the 2005 spring session without passing a bill to let the tracks add the machines.
The payment came to light this week when the state Republican Party filed its quarterly contributions report....There is nothing illegal or improper about such large contributions, as long as they are controlled by the party. But they cannot be made to individual legislators: State law prohibits giving lawmakers gifts valued at more than $100.
While one of the lawmakers on the trip, former Senate President Jim King, insisted it was simply an opportunity to raise money for the state GOP, current Senate President Tom Lee said no one in the party ever authorized the fundraiser.
It's also important to note that Lee and the Senate initially did not propose a complete ban on all expenditures by lobbyists. The original bill, SB 6B, instead proposed that lobbying expenditures be restricted to food and beverage and novelty items and that detailed reports be filed detailing which legislator or legislative employee received the gift. That same legislation also would have barred convicted felons from serving as lobbyists unless they had their civil rights restored.
Tallahassee lore - which several legislators have since confirmed - has that the House did not like the reporting mechanism included in the bill and instead proposed a zero ban.
The thinking was that the Senate would not accept such a strict requirement and the status quo would remain. Instead the Senate did adopt the "zero tolerance" language and the bill was passed and sent to the governor. This final measure changed the language regarding felons to apply it only to someone convicted after Jan. 1, 2006.
Interestingly enough, that bill actually also wiped out a requirement that lobbyists twice-a-year file overall lobbying expenditure reports.
These reports not only included entertainment expenses, but also included any money spent on media advertising, research, publication etc. In its place lobbyists - excluding those working directly for local governments or associations - began reporting how much they got paid by their clients. (A legal challenge to this portion of the bill did not succeed.) But what this meant is that lobbying firms were no longer required to report how much was spent say on TV ads trying to convince lawmakers to pass or defeat a bill.
Since the bill was passed there have been plenty of articles that have pointed out the ways to get around this ban, including lawmakers using political committees known as committees of continuous existence, or relying on perks given in connection to fundraisers.
There also unsubstantiated anecdotes that a new barter system has been established where a legislator will attend an event at the home of a lobbyist and show up with a bottle of wine or some other item to cover their costs.
Obviously to use an oft-heard phrase - trying to put limits on the relationship between lobbyists and legislator is a "work in progress."