Frantic fundraising as Florida legislative session nears

03/03/2014 6:02 PM

03/03/2014 10:46 PM

The race for campaign cash shifted into high gear Monday as dozens of state legislators sought contributions from lobbyists before Tuesday’s start of the legislative session, when such fundraising is banned for two months.

Under legislative rules, senators and House members cannot solicit or accept money for their campaigns during the session because the proximity of money changing hands and votes being cast would look unseemly. The result is that lawmakers increasingly use the rest of their time in Tallahassee to raise money, especially during weeks of hearings when they are often casting significant committee votes on matters affecting those lobbyists.

“The logic is inconsistent,” said Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida, a watchdog group. “They’re bumping up against their self-imposed deadlines, so they’re out there with their hands open.”

During three weeks in February when lawmakers held committee meetings, they held 47 fund-raisers, many of which involved multiple lawmakers.

Lobbyists counted 13 separate fund-raisers Monday, one of which included 11 Republican House members from Miami-Dade County.

The Legislature last year increased the maximum campaign contribution to its members to $1,000 from $500 and required all donations to be publicly reported more frequently.

Throughout the day, a familiar scene appeared over and over in restaurants and offices ringing the Capitol as legislators held “receptions” from 11:30 a.m. into the night, greeting lobbyists who dropped off checks.

Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, and three other House Democrats spent the lunch hour greeting lobbyists such as Paul Jess, a longtime advocate for trial lawyers. Jess handed an envelope to a grateful Rouson, a lawyer who consistently supports the trial bar’s legislative agenda.

Two doors away, Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, accepted a check from Barney Bishop, who tracks criminal-justice issues; McBurney chairs a House budget committee that oversees criminal-justice spending.

McBurney allowed a Herald/Times reporter to attend his midday event, which included Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, who also sits on the budget panel that McBurney chairs, dealing with funding for courts, state attorneys and public defenders.

House Democrats held a “pre-session roundup” at the private Governor’s Club. Senate Democrats held a happy hour “Drop, Drink, Dash” event there.

“It’s an opportunity for a lot of folks to speak with the advocates,” said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, who emphasized she was headed back to the Capitol on legislative business.

A group of Pinellas County Republicans, including Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and his son, Chris, a House candidate, held an evening event at a city park called “The Last Round-Up.” The other beneficiaries were Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, and Rep. Ed Hooper, a Pinellas County Commission candidate.

Three other well-attended events in the capital Monday were not fund-raisers. The Republican Party of Florida hosted a business leaders “fly-in” featuring Gov. Rick Scott and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Over lunch, Scott emphasized the importance of keeping the governorship in GOP control heading into the 2016 presidential election.

The NAACP hosted “Morality Monday” as labor and civil rights activists converged on the Capitol to call attention to expanding Medicaid and protecting voting rights. The tea party-backed Americans for Prosperity held a rally calling for tax cuts, overhauling the state pension system and expanding school choice.

Herald/Times staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com.

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