Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Make all lobbyists come clean

 

OUR OPINION: State law shouldn’t shield those in special-purpose districts

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

If you are a lobbyist in Florida you should be required to register as one and disclose who you are representing before appearing in front of any government body.

That’s precisely the case these days in Tallahassee and for most county and city governments in the Sunshine State.

But if you are a lobbyist with a cause to press before one of the special-purpose districts in Florida you likely don’t have to disclose anything before pleading your client’s case, according to BrowardBulldog.org, a not-for-profit online newspaper that reports on public-interest issues.

These special-purpose districts are often created to collect taxes within a defined geographical area for a specific purpose, such as administering child-welfare programs or delivering healthcare. The biggest special-purpose agencies are the state’s five water-management districts governed by nine-member boards appointed by the governor.

Together, the five water-management districts levied $480 million in property taxes in 2012 — and not a single one of them requires lobbyists to register or disclose their clients.

That lax policy allowed the vice chairman of the South Florida Water Management District’s governing board to serve as the lawyer/lobbyist for a company that sold the district $1.5 million worth of faulty electric pumps without disclosing the connection in 2007.

The same no-registration policy rules at North Broward Hospital District, which, as the story says, is long known for its political favoritism and lack of transparency in its contracting decisions. The hospital district currently is the subject of a federal probe connected to allegations of phony Medicare and Medicaid claims.

Of the special districts surveyed by BrowardBulldog.org, including 38 with combined budgets of more than $50 million, only three require some form of lobbyist registration and another one prohibits lobbying in its bylaws. One requiring registration is The Children’s Trust in Miami-Dade County. And the Broward Children’s Services Council commendably prohibits lobbying altogether.

We’re talking about lobbyists operating without public scrutiny at special-taxing districts that oversee millions of dollars of collected taxes each year. The South Florida Water Management District levied $284.7 million in 2012. The North Broward Hospital District collected $149.5 million that year, while the Southwest Florida Water Management District collected $104.7 million.

Integrity Florida, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit and nonpartisan government watchdog, is calling for more transparency for the special districts. It is absolutely right to do so.

There are two types of districts — dependent and independent. Dependent districts include the community-redevelopment agencies that many cities have established. They operate according to their municipalities’ lobbying rules, so most require registration and disclosure.

But there are 136 independent districts, often run by unelected boards, many of which can impose ad valorem taxes on homeowners and businesses. These districts wield enormous power over spending decisions involving the public’s tax money without much public oversight. Such shadowy transactions involving tax money draw lobbyists like moths to a flame. The Legislature should require the special districts’ governing boards to operate by the same rules for lobbyists that apply to it and most cities and counties in the state.

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