As regular as the spring azaleas bloom in Tallahassee, the “revolving door” that turns powerful lawmakers into influential lobbyists also makes an annual appearance.
This year that was exemplified by former House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a Brevard County Republican. Crisafulli’s two-year lobbying ban, which applies to all former lawmakers, expired last November.
With his ban lifted, Crisafulli opened a lobbying firm and represented a dozen clients before the 2019 Legislature, state records show. He lobbied on behalf of the beer industry, insurance companies, colleges and an education technology company.
It was a lucrative session for the former speaker. He earned somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000 in lobbying fees through the first three months of 2019, lobbyist compensation reports show.
Crisafulli is not alone in moving from a top legislative leadership role into the high-dollar field of lobbying his former colleagues.
A review of state records by the Florida Phoenix shows he is one of nine former House speakers or Senate presidents who were registered lobbyists for the 2019 session.
Seven of the former legislative leaders cumulatively earned $750,000 in the first three months of 2019, based on the median of the range of lobbying fees reported. That includes $525,000 cumulatively earned by three lobbying firms employing former Senate presidents — Brevard County Republican Mike Haridopolos, St. Lucie County Republican Ken Pruitt, and Broward County Republican Jim Scott.
The GrayRobinson law firm employs two former House speakers — Orlando Republican Dean Cannon and Ocala Republican Larry Cretul. The firm earned $1 million or more in lobbying fees in the first three months of 2019, state records show.
Because of the way state law works, lobbyists only have to list their incomes in ranges – such as $10,000 to $20,000. If they earn $50,000 or more, they have to report the exact amount.
As for former House Speaker Crisafulli, one of his biggest lobbying successes was securing $6 million in the new state budget for BRIDG, a consortium led by Osceola County, the University of Central Florida and the Florida High Tech Corridor Council. The money, if it survives Gov. Ron DeSantis’ upcoming budget review, will pay for high-tech equipment and research related to microelectronics and sensors.
Records show he was paid between $10,000 and $20,000 in lobbying fees for that project.
But Crisafulli wasn’t always successful. He and another lobbying firm were unable to secure any state funding for Eastern Florida State College to build a technology innovation center on its Brevard campus. The school had sought up to $5 million in state funds.
Records show Crisafulli was paid up to $10,000 for his lobbying work on the project.
Lobbying firms like to hire former House and Senate leaders because while they are in office, they wield tremendous power in deciding what bills and budget items will pass and which will fail. And when they leave office, their relationships with the new leaders who will have that power remains strong, although it can fade over time.
The current two-year lobbying ban does slow down the “revolving door” for former lawmakers looking to become lobbyists.
And Florida voters have decided to slow it down even more. In 2018, nearly 79 percent of voters approved a state constitutional amendment that will increase the lobbying ban to six years after lawmakers and other state and local officials leave office.
When the new ban takes effect in 2023, Florida will have the strongest lobbying ban for former state lawmakers in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of the 34 states that have lobbying bans for former lawmakers, the majority impose a ban of just one year or less.
Some lawmakers have objected to increasing the lobbying ban, arguing it is a violation of federal constitutional right to petition the government for the “redress of grievances.”
Former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami-Dade Republican, voted against the six-year state constitutional lobbying ban while it was debated by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission last year.
“Lobbying has been deemed as a constitutionally protected free speech,” Diaz said. “Should we as (CRC) members who are charged with protecting our Constitution turn a blind eye of potential infringement of the federal Constitution?”
A federal judge in 2010 voided an Ohio lobbying ban based on that constitutional argument. But the judge highlighted the fact that the ban applied to both uncompensated lobbying and paid lobbyists, saying there is a distinction.
Diaz, since leaving the Legislature, has gone to work for Ballard Partners, a major lobbying firm that works in Washington, D.C. to give its clients access to President Donald Trump. But Diaz, who is based in Miami, is prohibited from lobbying the Florida Legislature because of the Florida’s current two-year lobbying ban.
The main proponent behind the upcoming six-year lobbying ban is former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, an Okaloosa County Republican.
In the Florida Constitution Revision Commission debate last year, Gaetz said the six-year ban is designed “to nail shut the revolving door between public office and private lobbying.”
The ban extends to not only former lawmakers, state officials and local elected officials once they leave office, but it also adds something new: Elected officials will no longer be able to lobby other government agencies while they are in office.
Gaetz recalled a statement by state Sen. Tom Lee, another former Senate president and a Hillsborough County Republican who also served on the constitutional panel. “If you want to represent the people, run for office. If you want to represent special interests, be a lobbyist,” Gaetz said.