Florida lawmakers weigh bill to tweak lobbyist gift ban


The News Service of Florida

Enjoying a steak dinner on a lobbyist’s tab would still be banned. But a cup of coffee? Maybe not.

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee on Monday is expected to take up a bill that would allow limited exceptions to a lobbyist gift ban that changed the way of doing business in Tallahassee.

Sen. Tom Lee, who as Senate president in 2005 pushed through the gift ban, has filed the bill (SB 1634) that would make long-discussed tweaks. Lawmakers, for example, have complained that the ban prevents them from accepting token cups of coffee or having a bite to eat when they go to gatherings.

During a January meeting of the Ethics and Elections Committee, Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, raised the possibility of creating exceptions. She pointed to situations, for example, when lawmakers go to meet with nonprofit or community organizations. She said people get offended if a lawmaker can’t accept a cup of coffee.

“People say, ‘Why is it that I can’t even give you a cup of coffee, Sen. Joyner?’ ” she said. “These are not people who are big-time lobbyists. These are just ordinary people in community-based organizations, schools, the chamber. A cup of coffee, I’m not talking about a lot of money, I’m talking about some exception to … at least sit down and have a cup of coffee and a doughnut with constituents of that nature.”

Lee, R-Brandon, acknowledged during the meeting that the gift ban inadvertently created some awkward situations at widely attended events in lawmakers’ communities.

“There’s a difference between being sequestered in Tallahassee and a whole industry being developed around enhancing your lifestyle while you’re here, versus you being home in your own district and having organizations take you to lunch at a widely attended event or a gathering of some sort,’’ Lee said.

The bill would allow lawmakers to accept nonalcoholic beverages from lobbyists or from what is known as a “principal” — an organization or company that hires a lobbyist.

Also, it would allow lawmakers to accept meals if they are featured speakers, moderators or panel-discussion participants at events held by membership organizations that have lobbyists. In such situations, lawmakers would have to file reports with the Senate about attending the events.

Another key part of the bill would allow lawmakers to accept food and beverages at widely attended events that are held by membership organizations or governmental bodies that have lobbyists. The bill includes restrictions, however, such as the estimated cost of such an event couldn’t be more than $25 a person and the events would have to be accessible to the media.

The changes in the bill also would be scheduled to expire June 30, 2015.

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