TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – State Rep. Richard Corcoran, Florida’s new Speaker of the House, wants to ban local governments – including school districts, cities, counties, airports and other public entities – from paying lobbyists with taxpayer dollars.
“It’s a disgrace that taxpayer dollars are used to hire lobbyists when we elect people to represent them,” he told the Tampa Bay Times. “The state doesn’t do it, and neither should the locals.”
Local governments, municipalities, school districts and a wide range of other public entities spend millions on lobbyists in Florida ever year to represent their interests in Tallahassee, but Corcoran believes the practice is a waste of taxpayer dollars that could go to better use.
The conservative lawmaker first attempted to end taxpayer-funded lobbying in November as part of a broader crackdown on questionable political policies that have plagued the state for decades, but his colleagues essentially dismissed his efforts.
Instead, he issued a rule requiring lobbyists to expose their contracts with the public sector on a state website. Those contracts are now listed on the House website MyFloridaHouse.gov for the public to review, but he ultimately wants to ban publicly funded lobbyists altogether, according to the news site.
Corcoran draws a distinction between lobbyists paid for by taxpayers and those hired by private businesses, which spend much more on influencing lawmakers. Publicly funded lobbying funnels tax dollars to well-connected playmakers who essentially act as intermediaries between elected officials, while private industries spend their own money to protect their interests, he argued.
“There’s two different worlds,” Corcoran said. “But I’ve said very clearly there’s lines between the two. One is public with public dollars and one is private with private dollars.”
Contracts posted to the House website show some lobbyists are taking home a lot of taxpayer cash, though the payments pale in comparison to the private sector.
Ron Book, who represents “nearly three dozen local governments, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Pinellas counties,” takes home more than $1 million a year, courtesy of local residents.
“It’s just a necessity to make sure that taxpayers are properly represented,” Book told the news site. “We’re smart enough to understand the system.”
It’s an I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine sort of system.
“Book, 64, an Aventura lawyer, his wife and his law firm gave more than $1.5 million to candidates for the Legislature and statewide office since 1996, according to the state campaign finance database,” the Times reports.
In Florida, as in many other states, local school districts pay lobbyists to represent their interests at the state level. Some even pay for federal lobbyists.
Local government officials in Florida are split on the idea of using tax money to get what they want from state lawmakers, though most who spoke with the Times seem to prefer the system as is.
“The average county commissioner has no idea how to lobby,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, a former legislator. “You’ve got to have a full-time person monitoring the process, engaged in the process and developing relationships.”
“Lobbying is not a four-letter word,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, also a former lawmaker. “Lobbyists are a resource. If you’re smart enough to know what you don’t know, you hire the right people.”
Pasco County commissioners, meanwhile, opted to end their $60,000-a-year contract with lobbyist Shawn Foster in favor of using resources they already pay for to represent their interests in Tallahassee, Commissioner Mike Wells Jr. told the Times.
“My idea is to save the taxpayers’ money,” he said. “We should do it internally going forward.”