politics

Lawmakers return to Tallahassee for committee week

 

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

State lawmakers descend upon the Capitol this week to ostensibly vet policies and legislation, one of nine “committee weeks” they’ll attend between now and March, when the 2014 session opens.

Don’t expect any breakthroughs. No hearings on big issues like Medicaid expansion, Common Core and “stand your ground” are scheduled. Lawmakers instead will listen to staff reports on the state’s bond rating, long-range financial outlook and a petroleum restoration program.

But it won’t be a wasted trip considering at least 30 fundraisers are scheduled for a total of 61 lawmakers — more than a third of the entire Legislature. And because it’s a “committee week,” lawmakers get all their travel expenses — gas mileage, airfare, food and lodging — paid for by taxpayers.

“What you’ll find is nothing will get done this week,” said Mike Fasano, who served in the Legislature since 1994 before leaving this year to become Pasco tax collector. “Not all of the committees will meet. There will be no bills, zero bills, being heard. This week is really an excuse to go and raise money.”

It’s not cheap — for taxpayers. According to the Florida House, it cost an average of $104,136 in travel expenses for the chamber’s 120 members and staff to attend each of the six committee weeks preceding the 2013 session. If that pace continues, it’ll cost more than $900,000 from now until March, and that doesn’t include expenses for the state’s 40 senators.

“If you’re a lawmaker, you might as well take advantage of it,” said David Browning, a lobbyist with Southern Strategy. “How else am I going to get that number of people amassed in my district all at once who can pay the maximum amount? Campaigns are more expensive than ever, so you have to be more aggressive in raising money than before.”

Tallahassee is, after all, where the big money is. Lobbyists representing clients with statewide interests — insurance companies, casinos, hospitals — are mostly located here. And they’re ready to dole out checks at fundraisers or around town when they encounter lawmakers on their list this week.

If you’re a candidate, it sure beats cold calling and it’s a fast way to build up a war chest to scare away potential challengers. Of those with fundraisers scheduled this week, 41 don’t have opponents in 2014. And about a week before the end of the reporting period, those without opponents have already raised an average of $21,000.

It’s such a precious moment that party leaders worry about wasting a minute. Florida House Democrats will be arriving a day early so they can settle on whether Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, will remain incoming leader for 2014 without interfering in already scheduled campaign events.

The opportunity to make it rain for lawmakers doesn’t exist during the two-month legislative session because of a prohibition on fundraising that’s intended to separate lawmaking from campaigning.

Yet that’s an exception that even makes some who have fundraisers this week, like Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, uneasy.

“If a bill came forward banning fundraising for this week, I’d support it,” Moskowitz said. “I don’t want the message to constituents to be that there’s a correlation between lawmaking and fundraising. There should not be a correlation, and there isn’t one. But we should avoid the perception that there is.”

Other lawmakers make no apologies.

“It’s efficient fundraising,” said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, who has a Tuesday fundraiser at the private Governor’s Club. “We’re up there at taxpayer expense, but we do have some downtime that belongs to us.”

Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, is attending a joint Monday fundraiser at the Governor’s Club with fellow Republicans Rep. Janet Adkins of Fernandina Beach, Reps. Charles McBurney and Lake Ray of Jacksonville, Rep. Ronald Renuart of Ponte Vedra Beach and Rep. Elizabeth Porter of Lake City.

Only Ray has a committee meeting that day.

Van Zant said he has a committee meeting Tuesday morning and didn’t want to drive in early that day. Monday’s fundraiser won’t distract him from his duties, he said.

“That fundraiser will be two hours of the total time that I’ll be there,” Van Zant said. “I will go to my committee meetings and take copious notes and process what’s said. I’m there to attend committee meetings.

“But I don’t want you to think there’s anything wrong with committee week,” said Van Zant, who has raised $42,000 for a 2014 race that has no challenger yet. “This is part of American politics. You should be proud that we have this freedom and can get out and campaign.”

Altogether, the House has scheduled 27 committee meetings from Tuesday to Thursday. On Monday, there’s a joint audit committee meeting with the Senate, which has scheduled 19 meetings from Monday to Thursday.

Told about Fasano’s misgivings about committee week, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford responded with a robust defense of free speech.

“Unless the U.S. Supreme Court changes its current view that contributing to campaigns is a First Amendment right, then every political campaign from tax collector to the U.S. president will hold fundraisers in their pursuit of elected office,” he said in an email. “As speaker, I have worked to add more transparency and accountability to the process within the confines of the Constitution.”

Contact Michael Van Sickler at mvansickler@tampabay.com.

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