Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush returned to the state capital on Monday to outline his plans to overhaul the culture of Washington D.C.
And in doing so - he may have _ to the consternation of some of those in the audience helped preserve the state's lobbyist gift ban.
The ban was enacted in late 2005 - one of the strictest regulations in the country at the time - and came after legislative wrangling that was an outgrowth of changes sought by then-Senate President Tom Lee.
For a national audience it may have sounded Monday as if Bush was the instigator of the ban.
"I know how that culture works,'' Bush said. "I saw it here in Tallahassee. Over time, lobbyists and legislators grew a little too comfortable in each other’s company, cutting deals that didn’t have much to do with the public interest. So along with the other changes we made, the Florida Legislature passed a law that I signed into law that created the strictest lobbying reforms in the country."
There's nothing inaccurate in that statement. But it does kind of brush aside a bit of the back story that existed in the development of the ban since it was legislators, not the governor, who was the main driver of the change.
Lee's goal was never to ban anything. He advocated two things: Disclosure of the freebies that lobbyists gave to legislators - and disclosure of how much money lobbyists were paid.
Lee told reporters at the time that they would be surprised how much money was in the system, and how that disclosure would shed a light on why the Legislature did some of the things that it did.
The Brandon Republican made his push for changes at the same time that a series of articles _ many of them in The Miami Herald _ that showed how the state's existing disclosure and gift laws had been flouted.
One example: Legislators couldn't accept anything more than $100 - and items lower than that but higher than $25 were supposed to be reported. Lobbyists would routinely agree to split the costs among themselves and spread it to multiple legislators to sidestep this requirement.
Other stories disclosed how one legislator solicited contributions from lobbyists for a trip to Africa, while another described a lavish engagement party held for one legislator and paid for lobbyists.
Lee's push initially went nowhere - but the issue gained momentum after the Herald published a story in late 2005 that pointed out four legislators flew to Canada on a private jet and visited a casino. They argued that they were raising money for the Republican Party of Florida so it was legal. But the cost of the trip was much more higher than the money raised. Plus it came at a time when legislators were considering how to implement a constitutional amendment dealing with gambling in South Florida.
During a special session late that year Lee pushed to add the gift ban to the mix since it was not included in the initial call issued by Bush. (The special session was called to implement an overhaul of Medicaid and to implement the amendment that allowed slot machines in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.)
The initial Senate bill did not ban everything. Instead it required detailed reporting of who provided meals and beverages to legislators on an individual basis. But it was the House _ led then by Speaker Allan Bense _ that moved a bill that called for a complete ban.
The telling of the tale since then has posited that Bense and the House did not like the disclosure requirements pushed by Lee so they countered with such a Draconian measure that the Senate would reject it. Only that didn't happen. Lee and the Senate amended their bill to match the House measure and sent it over. Just 9 legislators voted no. Bush eagerly signed the measure into law.
"I applaud President Lee and Speaker Bense for their leadership in reforming the political status quo,'' Bush said at the time. "This measure increases transparency and accountability for the political process."
Since then the ban has survived a legal challenge, but the criticism against it has been steadily mounting, including those who note that there are legal ways for legislators to sidestep it. One key way: Solicit money from lobbyists for political committees and then use that money to pay for meals and other items.
Some lobbyists have complained that the gift ban has somehow distorted the process because they can't share a meal, or drink with legislators and that the ones with access are those who raise large amounts of money for campaigns and political committees.
Tallahassee-area legislators have maintained _ with little empirical data _ that the gift ban hurt the local economy.
Last year marked the first time since 2005 that an attempt to alter the gift ban statute made it through the process. The bill made a relatively minor tweak by making it clear that a local government that gives a legislator use of public property for a public purpose does not violate the gift ban if the local government has hired lobbyists.
But the passage of the bill included several asides from legislators that more substantial changes should be made to the law in the near future.
Bush may have blunted that momentum for now by citing the ban as a justification for a series of reforms he wants to push if elected president.
"I think the system is significantly better after that law was passed,'' Bush told a crowd gathered at Florida State University.
Now for certain it was an interesting crowd for Bush to make the remark since many of those in attendance are themselves lobbyists.
Some of the news accounts noted the connection that Bush himself has to lobbyists, including that his top adviser, Sally Bradshaw, is married to Paul Bradshaw, who founded one of Tallahassee's most successful lobbying firms Southern Strategy Group.
But by placing the gift ban into the orbit of his legacy Bush has created a rationale for top Republicans in the Legislature to support keeping it in largely intact for now. Many top GOP leaders are backing Bush for president.
It still may have been unlikely that the gift ban would have been revamped during the 2016 election year but Bush's decision to champion it may make that an even more remote possibility.