Lobbyists cost us a heck of a lot more than their fees

Miami Herald Editorial Board

House Speaker Richard Corcoran is pushing to reform lobbying in Tallahassee.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran is pushing to reform lobbying in Tallahassee. MIAMI HERALD

The obscure business of lobbying in the state is being exposed like never before — thanks to a new Florida House rule.

The huge amount of money that local governments spend to make their case to state legislators is a given. But, finally, seeing all those zeros, in black and white, is an eye-opener. And taxpayers should weigh in.

A House rule that went into effect on Tuesday requires that all lobbyists in Tallahassee declare how much their clients pay them. In fact, those contracts now will be posted online. As intended, the rule brings to light both the clients — largely counties and cities across the state — and what they pay for lobbying services by the year, the month or split with other firms.

In South Florida, Miami-Dade County is paying $120,000; Fort Lauderdale pays $97,500 split between three different firms; Bal Harbour Village pays $60,000; Broward County pays $53,000. All are clients of Miami-Dade’s uber-lobbyist, Ron Book, and his Aventura-based agency, considered the state’s top firm.

“Cities and taxpayers should have quality representation in Tallahassee,’’ Book told the Editorial Board. That’s precisely his business, he said. “I’m proud to be a lobbyist, but I know some people don’t like us, and that’s because they are naive about the process.”

Or maybe they’re actually sharp enough to know how the big bucks lobbyists wield can be a convenient bid to protect incumbents, punish uncooperative lawmakers and, basically, put even more of a buffer between lawmakers and their constituents. Not illegal, but it can weaken that government of, by and for the people that we tout so highly.

How much taxpayer money is being paid to win favor in Tallahassee can leave a bitter taste. And the figures released represent lobbying work only for the House; the Senate has no such Sunshine Law rule and, we suspect, its members prefer it that way.

Some elected officials will tell you that the amount of bacon well-connected lobbyists bring back home outweighs the cost of hiring them. The dirty secret is that this is all about campaign contributions: Local governments can’t make donations to lawmakers’ political campaigns. But lobbyists can. A lot of backs are getting mutually scratched.

The latest push to draw back the curtain began in November when incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, who wants to rein in lobbying, called it a “disgrace” that cities, counties, school boards, sheriffs and others spend tax dollars to hire lobbyists to represent their interests in Tallahassee.

Corcoran asked pointedly: Why aren’t local elected officials doing the lobbying work for their own governments — and saving taxpayer money? It’s a good question, and localities’ taxpayers deserve an answer from their elected officials.

Then Corcoran asked a more-pointed question: Why aren’t legislators aware of the needs of the governments within their districts and doing the lobbying for them? Book said overwhelmed lawmakers have no time to be “laser-focused” on the needs of a small city. But we thought that’s why, and whom, lawmakers wanted to serve.

Corcoran couldn’t get House consensus to make this initiative a law. But he did the next best thing: He made it part of the rules to require mandatory disclosure of all government contracts by any House lobbyists.

Commend Corcoran for insisting on transparency in Florida’s transparency-averse environment. The Senate should give it a try.