In journalism school, we got two directives to guide our reporting careers:
- If your mother says she loves you, check it out.
- Follow the money.
It’s easy to follow the money in Tallahassee – we just stroll a few blocks from our downtown Florida Phoenix office. Like the azaleas and camellias, political fundraisers are in full bloom. Everybody is in a hurry to get campaign cash because they aren’t allowed to do political fundraising once the 60-day legislative session starts March 5.
“It’s not a lot of fun,” wealthy lobbyist (and now Trump whisperer) Brian Ballard whined to 850 magazine in 2009. “But it’s virtually non-stop. You’re always out looking for new blood; those people willing to give.”
State records show that right now, there are 10 registered lobbyists for every one legislator. The lobbying corps include former lawmakers and former state officials, haunting the Capitol halls once again. It’s weird to see former Gov. Bob Martinez over there – he’s a lobbyist now.
We see lobbyists scurrying through the streets, bearing campaign checks and promises. Unless the laws change, this is Florida’s political reality. If a legislator wants to stay in office, they’ve got to raise cash for reelection. And lobbyists are the ones who handle that.
The lobbyists all operate in anticipation of the Big Payback – that moment when they get a state legislator to pass a law to benefit a client.
Mind you, this can take years. The corporate lobbyist may have hand-picked some local official – say, a county commissioner with larger political ambitions – to run for the state Legislature. The lobbyist may turn out allies to bankroll this person’s campaign. The lobbyist may shepherd this person through the unfamiliar social and political circles in Florida’s out-of-the-way capital city. The lobbyist may provide special enticements particular to that legislator. In this clubby, entitled world, the legislator may rightly conclude that they are on the same team as this corporate lobbyist.
Legislators, governors, Public Service Commissioners – they all come and go. But the lobbyists are the structural skeleton to Tallahassee’s body politic.
“As someone who advocates for government reform, you’re trying to stick your finger in this flowing dike of influence that’s just washing over the political process,” says Ben Wilcox. “The money’s there. If they want to use it to buy influence at the Capitol, they’ve got unlimited ways to do that.”
Wilcox is research director for the government accountability nonprofit Integrity Florida. He first got involved in the legislative process as a reporter back in the late 1970s.
“The public wants reform,” Wilcox says, “but the Legislature is just not responsive.”
Those of us who’ve been around awhile have seen some eye-opening things over the years, including demands for sexual liaisons and job offers in exchange for votes. We’ve watched out-of-town corporate lobbyist armies (oil drillers come to mind) parachute in to strong-arm an issue and obliterate their startled opposition. We see lobbyists out drinking and flattering nerdy legislative committee staffers, because the lobbyists know that those are the people who write the bills. There’s even more we don’t see.
It’s a lot easier to get things passed in state legislatures these days than it is to get anything through the impossibly gridlocked Congress. And Florida looks especially attractive right now to conservatives and big businesses. We’ve got a new right-wing governor who is tied in with the right-wing president. We’ve got Republican majorities in our state House and Senate. Our state agencies are just being formed in Gov. Ron DeSantis’s mold, and they are wide open for influence as the new administration finds its footing. Lobbyists – especially corporate ones – see opportunity beckoning from our odd-looking Capitol.
These days, lobbyists have to file reports with the state disclosing how much they get paid and who paid them, which is useful when you’re trying to follow the dollar. They only have to list a monetary range – not the exact amount. The low end is $1-$9,999 and the high end is $50,000 or more.
But these compensation reports don’t give you the full picture about the real money in the process. For that, you have to swim in the dark waters of Political Action Committees, those infamous slush funds which neatly shield unlimited campaign contributions from who-knows-who public view. A lot of them have altruistic-sounding names which become more absurd the more you learn about them. “Consumers for Smart Solar,” for example, was set up by utility companies which want to control the solar industry. “Citizens for a Better Tomorrow” is a defunct shell PAC chaired by Barney Bishop, who was head of the state’s notoriously cut-throat big-business trade group, Associated Industries of Florida.
Associated Industries of Florida holds one of Tallahassee’s most celebrated annual lobbyist parties next week, kicking off the legislative session. Business tycoons have been putting the massive party on for over three decades. Behold the cocktails, the chilled shrimp, and the scrum of big utility lobbyists gathered together. The utilities – TECO, Florida Power & Light, Duke, and Gulf Power – are among the largest of the lobby armies, and they are political cash rainmakers. You pay your power bill every month; they use some of that money to grease the political machinery.
“You know how Tallahassee has an in-group and an out-group? I didn’t know I was on the outside until I went against the public utilities, and then — holy hell,” former state Rep. Paige Kreegel, a doctor from southwest Florida, told the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting in 2015.
It’s hard to watch a regular citizen who is unfamiliar with this mercenary process come in at the beginning of the legislative session all hopeful, attend endless committees and parse convoluted amendments, walk miles through the halls with aching feet, wheedle over details and get promises, and then, in the last days – BAM! A lawmaker on the floor suddenly substitutes the bill they’ve been crafting and worrying over for two months and replaces it on the spot with a “strike all.” A totally new bill in the form of an amendment – and who the heck knows what’s in it?
Someone knows exactly what’s in it. And it’s their Payback Day. Tonight’s drinks, my friends, will be on them.