TALLAHASSEE -- Even for Tallahassee standards, the scene was notable: lobbyist Brian Ballard dining with a nursing home executive, Gov. Rick Scott and a top aide at a pricey restaurant just blocks from the Capitol.
That Ballard’s clout could command a private dinner with the governor for a client speaks to the influential lobbyist’s fundraising finesse.
But equally important, and less celebrated, is Ballard’s talent for helping his clients land lucrative state contracts: $938 million this year alone, according to a Herald/Times analysis of contracts in the $70 billion state budget.
“Is that all?’’ joked Ballard, who said he had never added it up. “A big part of my business is protecting contracts, and outsourcing. Outsourcing saves [the state] money.”
Ballard is not alone. The lobbying offices that line the moss-covered streets of Tallahassee have grown exponentially larger in the past two decades as governors and legislators have steered a greater share of the state’s budget to outside vendors.
No one is keeping track of the total, but Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater last year estimated the total contract expenditure for Florida’s 2011-12 budget cycle at $50.4 billon — 72 percent of the budget. The bulk of it, nearly $42 billion, was for healthcare contracts and service sector grants that often are never competitively bid.
“We probably privatize, or outsource, more than some of the Northeastern states — and we have a lot more volume,’’ said David Wilkins, a retired business executive who was tapped by the governor to review the state’s byzantine contracting process. He also is secretary of the Department of Children and Families.
Vendors — from giant computer firms and healthcare HMOs, to purveyors of office supplies, parking spaces and even prison services — each compete for a piece of one of the biggest spending pies in the Southeast: the state of Florida. The infusion of state cash into private and non-profit industries has spawned a cottage industry of lobbyists who help vendors manage the labyrinth of rules and build relationships with executive agency officers and staff so they can steer contracts to their clients.
There are now more people registered to lobby the governor, the Cabinet and their agencies — 4,925 — than there are registered to lobby the 160-member Legislature — 3,235.
Dozens of former legislators and their staff populate that industry, as well as former utility regulators, agency secretaries, division heads and other employees.
The most high-profile newcomer to the executive branch lobbying corps is Dean Cannon, the former speaker of the House from Orlando. Even before he retired from office in November, he had set up a lobbying shop just a block from the Capitol and started signing up clients to lobby the executive branch.
Cannon’s swift lawmaker-to-lobbyist turnaround has spawned a backlash from former colleagues. Senators are proposing that lawmakers leaving office wait two years before they can lobby the executive branch — similar to the law that applies to former lawmakers who lobby the Legislature.
“One minute you can be overseeing a budget and the next you’re lobbying a state agency,’’ said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, who is shepherding the Senate ethics bill. “That’s a revolving door and that’s wrong.”