Courtesy of The Miami Herald
Steve Bousquoet and Michael Auslet
Published January 27, 2017
TALLAHASSEE -- Three decades ago, lobbyist Ron Book
persuaded a public hospital to pay him to protect its interests in the
faraway Capitol, just as private businesses do.
Book still represents the South Broward Hospital District, and he earns more
than $1 million a year lobbying for nearly three dozen local governments,
including Miami-Dade, Broward and Pinellas counties — all paid by local
taxpayers in Florida.
But what local
officials call a necessity, the new House speaker, Rep.
Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, calls wasteful. He says
taxpayers should not have to pay so that one group of
politicians can talk to another, using well-connected
lobbyists as intermediaries.
“It’s a disgrace that taxpayer dollars are used to hire
lobbyists when we elect people to represent them,” Corcoran
says. “The state doesn’t do it, and neither should the
He says private companies can hire all the lobbyists they
want with private money but that government, paid for with
taxes, is different.
Government spending on lobbying is far exceeded by what
private industries spend.
In addition to his public clients, Book last year earned
another $4.5 million, or nearly three times as much, from a
long roster of clients that includes AT&T, AutoNation,
Florida Power & Light and the Miami Heat.
That total is a low estimate and is based on lobbyists’
fee-disclosure reports filed with the state in which income
is listed in wide ranges.
Lobbyist Ron Book reacts as he talks with Sen. Oscar
Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, outside the Senate chamber, May 3, 2013,
in Tallahassee. A bill sponsored by Braynon to give the Miami
Dolphins a taxpayer-supported stadium upgrade was struggling on the
final day of the legislative session.
But lobbying paid for by taxpayers is an easy target for
Corcoran, a conservative firebrand who two years ago launched a populist
crusade against “Gucci-loafing, shoe-wearing special interests” in a pitched
debate over healthcare expansion.
Corcoran tried in November to outlaw taxpayer-funded lobbying as part of his
broader strategy against business as usual in the Capitol.
But when House members balked, Corcoran pushed through a rule requiring
lobbyists to file their public contracts with the state as a condition of
lobbying the House. He can’t force private interests to disclose the same
Government contracts are already public record, but now
they will be listed alphabetically on the House website, myfloridahouse.gov.
It’s the one place where Corcoran says taxpayers can now see for the first
time which lobbyists profit the most from public money.
“Top 10 lobbyists who get taxpayer money,” Corcoran says. “Top 10 county
commissioners who let lobbyists do their job because they stink.”
It’s unclear where taxpayers save money if governments stop hiring contract
lobbyists. If a local government has its own employee do the lobbying, that
work would be paid for by taxpayers, too. If a local government has its
elected officials do their own lobbying, which Corcoran favors, there’s a
cost with that, too.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, a former Republican
legislator, said it makes no sense for Corcoran to insist that local
officials do their own lobbying.
“The average county commissioner has no idea how to lobby,” said Crist, who
spent two decades in Tallahassee. “You’ve got to have a full-time person
monitoring the process, engaged in the process and developing
Crist says that if Corcoran had his way and local governments could not hire
lobbyists, business interests would have even more clout than they do now.
Cities get lobbying help from an advocacy group, the Florida League of
Cities, which had 16 lobbyists on its payroll in 2016. The Florida
Association of Counties hired a dozen lobbyists.
But those numbers pale in comparison to the armies of hired guns for private
industry, whose agendas often clash with local governments.
Florida Power & Light had 35 lobbyists on retainer in 2016. Disney had 34,
the Florida Chamber of Commerce 26 and Duke Energy 21.
“You’d better take it away from everyone else, too, or you’re going to
create a one-sided advantage,” Crist said.
Hillsborough will spend $72,000 this year on a contract with the lobbying
firm of Smith, Bryan and Myers, which, with the county’s support, hired a
Tallahassee law firm at a discounted rate of $295 per hour for legal advice.
One county priority in the 2017 session is resolving the fate of the
Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission, which local lawmakers say has
failed to adequately regulate ride-sharing services.
Cities and counties are preparing for a battle over the state’s
implementation of Amendment 2 legalizing medical marijuana use.
Some cities and counties want laws to block medical pot access near schools
or churches, but they also don’t want the state dictating a
one-size-fits-all solution to what they say is a matter of home rule.
Local governments say they need muscle to navigate the Capitol during the
fast-paced nine-week session in an era when term limits have sapped the
Capitol of its institutional knowledge and cities and counties are cast as
adversaries, not partners.
Last spring, counties hired teams of lobbyists who successfully opposed
unfunded mandates, limits on property taxes, repeal of red-light cameras and
efforts to weaken home rule through state preemption of local regulations.
“I’ve seen up close how the Legislature tries to cripple local government,”
says Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach. “If you don’t have an incredible story
to tell, you had better get yourself a lobbyist.”
Lobbyists spend years currying favor with lawmakers and raising money for
their campaigns — as well as for those local elected officials who hire them
to work on their behalf.
Book, 64, an Aventura lawyer, his wife and his law firm gave more than $1.5
million to candidates for the Legislature and statewide office since 1996,
according to the state campaign finance database.
Several lobbyists declined to comment for this report, and Book, the most
visible target of Corcoran’s wrath, made no objections when asked.
“I’m deeply respectful of the speaker’s thoughts on the issue,” Book says.
Corcoran has angered local officials who say they need lobbying muscle to
compete with private industry, to ensure that their voices aren’t drowned
out by corporate interests that have traditionally wielded the most power in
“Lobbying is not a four-letter word,” says Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally
Heyman, a former Democratic lawmaker. “Lobbyists are a resource. If you’re
smart enough to know what you don’t know, you hire the right people.”
In Broward, seven firms divided $326,000 in fees to lobby for county
government in Tallahassee in 2016.
The county’s chief of intergovernmental affairs, Edward Labrador, said
lobbyists were a big help in the county getting $2 million for a water
supply expansion project.
“Right there, we just got a 6-to-1 return on investment,” Labrador said. “It
benefits us to have people who have good relationships with people who are
not in our delegation, and with people who are in leadership.”
Cities and counties also pay lobbyists exclusively to secure state money
through the practice of budget “earmarks,” a practice Corcoran also
“Too many appropriations projects are giveaways to vendors, and the decision
of whether they get in the budget has more to do with their choice of
lobbyist than the merits of the project,” he told House members at his
swearing-in ceremony in November.
But local officials say too much is at stake to leave it to chance.
The Tampa Port Authority has 10 lobbyists from two major firms registered on
its behalf as it seeks $500 million over five years for capital improvement
projects to spur the region’s economy.
“We are going to do everything we can to make our port successful,” port
director Paul Anderson said. “The state is our investment partner.”
Like anyone who’s successful in Tallahassee, Corcoran has had frequent
interactions with lobbyists. Their clients’ money was necessary to secure
the elections of House members who made him speaker.
But Corcoran draws a distinction between party fundraising and lobbyists
being paid by Florida taxpayers.
“There’s two different worlds,” Corcoran said. “But I’ve said very clearly
there’s lines between the two. One is public with public dollars, and one is
private with private dollars.”
Corcoran’s brother, Mike, is a lobbyist who was paid by taxpayers of Miami,
Miami Beach and Hillsborough County last year.
Richard Corcoran can’t stop the practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying, but
his crusade claimed its first victim a few days after he took office as
speaker on Nov. 22.
Commissioners in his home county of Pasco voted to cancel a $60,000-a-year
deal with lobbyist Shawn Foster at the end of this year and will rely on a
county employee, Ralph Lair, a former legislative aide.
“My idea is to save the taxpayers’ money,” said Commissioner Mike Wells Jr.
“We should do it internally going forward.”
That’s the exception.
St. Petersburg recently signed up a Tallahassee lobbying firm, Capitol
Alliance Group, that bid $50,000 a year. Plant City is in talks with a
$50,000 deal with Southern Strategy Group.
City Manager Mike Herr said Plant City plans to spend about $50,000 next
year, if the city commission approves the pick based on a competitive
“We felt it was better to have someone full-time working on our behalf,”
Plant City City Manager Mike Herr said. “We’ve got full-time jobs back here,
managing the city.”