Lobbyists at the center of incumbents’ endless campaigns

Richard Corcoran, the new speaker of the Florida House, is making lobbying reform a centerpiece of his tenure.
Richard Corcoran, the new speaker of the Florida House, is making lobbying reform a centerpiece of his tenure. MIAMI HERALD

Richard Corcoran, the new speaker of the Florida House is making lobbying reform a centerpiece of his tenure. He deserves credit for shining a long-overdue light on the issue of lobbyists’ power in Tallahassee. But even with support from good-government advocates and major newspapers, the most critical reform of all is absent from the agenda, and some of the specifics will end up creating unintended, negative consequences.

In a perfect world, cities, school systems and public hospitals would not have to hire lobbyists. And there is ample evidence of cronyism in the practice. But one could make a case that hiring lobbyists is not just a necessary evil but is also cost effective and efficient. Small communities may have only one legislator who has multiple agendas and limited political reach. The costs of training an in-house employee to be in Tallahassee would be more expensive then hiring an A-list lobbyist.

For large municipalities, such as Miami-Dade County, which have so many issues, it is not practical to expect the delegation to handle them all. The county has many talented and powerful legislators who spend their political capital on issues for the greater good, in addition to the county agenda. Colleges and universities, K-12 education, public health, the environment — all these and more are interests of individual legislators. Replacing the lobbying team would require a large team of county employees traveling to Tallahassee over multiple years, which would be more costly and less effective than hiring a competent lobbying team. (Disclosure: My firm is not a part of the current county team).

Another one of the speaker’s proposals requires individual bills for local project appropriation. I do like that Corcoran is trying to bring more scrutiny to local projects because many bad ones that tarnish the good ones. However there is a reason Senate President Joe Negron, a reformer in his own right, has not had the Senate adopt the same appropriation rules. Primarily, they are overly cumbersome. In fact, the speaker’s lobbying reforms require such onerous reporting requirements that it will be difficult for small lobbying firms to survive.

What’s most troubling about Corcoran’s reforms is that they do not address the core issue: the toxic amount of political contributions that are a cancer on the entire system. ContributionLink, a well-respected analytics firm in Tallahassee, reported recently that more than $400 million was raised and spent by political action committees (PACS), candidates and parties in this last election cycle. More worrisome, candidates with PACs are starting to dwarf contributions to traditional parties.

State legislators from the powerful to the marginal have individual PACS that can raise money in amounts that exceed those of their campaign committees. These funds are used to promote their political profile, travel, wine and dine donors.

Legislators believe they need the PACS to ward off challengers, and lobbyists feel pressured to give in order to maintain relevance for their clients. It creates an endless cycle of fund-raising. Good legislators and lobbyists hate it, but no one seems able to end it. A meaningful start would be a series of reforms limiting legislators’ and lobbyists’ ability to raise money for these PACS.

Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.