Courtesy of The Miami Herald
Mary Ellen Klas
Published January 20, 2016
TALLAHASSEE -- As Florida legislators begin their
annual session in an election year, at least $28.5 million has been
funneled into legislative political committees in the past six months,
fueling progress on priority legislation for many industries, and
blocking other ideas from advancing, according to a Herald/Times
For example, while legislation to clear a path for popular ride-sharing
services such as Uber and Lyft has rolled quickly through the Florida
House and is ready for a vote after the first week of the annual
session, the industry has not been a big campaign donor, and the bill is
a long shot in the state Senate. There, the influence of the legacy taxi
industry, and years of campaign cash defeated the effort last year.
However, the prospects look better for the oil and gas industry. Its top
priority — preventing local governments from regulating or banning
hydraulic fracturing (fracking) — has sped through both chambers.
“It’s moving fast and it’s moving hard,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania
Beach, who has filed a rival bill that would ban fracking in Florida.
His bill has not gotten a hearing, and he predicts it won’t “because
there’s no money in stopping environmental degradation. That’s not where
the cash is.”
Unlike the disruptive ride-sharing industry, which is also seeking
protection from restrictive regulation by local governments, the oil and
gas companies are on their fourth year of trying to get their bill
passed, and they have revised their pitch and juiced their proposal — by
doubling their campaign contributions to legislators.
The Barron Collier Companies, for example, which is seeking a permit to
use hydraulic fracturing to drill for oil and gas in Naples, has steered
$115,000 to lawmakers — up from the $63,500 it spent last session. Other
members of the petroleum industry have warmed up lawmakers’ campaigns
with another $170,000.
Since lawmakers finished their 2015 regular session work in June, at
least $9.5 million — in five- and six-figure checks — were sent to the
political committees of individual lawmakers. Another $6 million went
directly to the campaigns of state representatives and $3 million to
state Senate campaigns. The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee
raised another $3.2 million for Republican senators. The Republican
Party of Florida, which is collecting checks for state House campaigns,
raised $4.3 million, and the Florida Democratic Party, which raises
money for all its legislators, collected $2.1 million.
The torrent of cash is the result of a shift in state campaign finance
laws that allowed for unfettered donations to legislative political
committees in the wake of the federal court ruling on Citizens United,
the landmark Supreme Court decision that gave special interests the
right to spend unlimited amounts on political speech. Stronger
disclosure laws opened the door to more frequent reporting, but there is
no requirement for contributors to disclose what issues or bills they
are attempting to impact.
Many of the cash-rich special interests are getting preferential
treatment as their priority bills have been moving early in the 60-day
session. Just as importantly, many ideas that are opposed by influential
special interests are getting blocked. The ride-share debate is a
classic turf battle, but it’s not the only one. Industry fights are
emerging over medical marijuana, gambling, schools, solar power,
tobacco, hospital regulation, dental care and pain clinics.
Some people see
Florida as a frontier open for business, and others see it as a fortress
that needs to be protected. It’s free market as they define it.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg
“The Uber issue [HB 509] is reflective of so many
other issues we’ve fought over the years,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St.
Petersburg Republican with a strong Libertarian streak. He chafes at
what he considers the Legislature’s predilection “for building the walls
higher and the moats deeper” for some industries to maintain the status
quo instead of embracing free-market principles.
“Big beer and craft brewers, big power and solar, taxi cabs and Uber —
they are the same issue repackaged,” he said. “Some people see Florida
as a frontier open for business, and others see it as a fortress that
needs to be protected. It’s free market as they define it.”
Jenne, a liberal Democrat, could be Brandes’ ideological opposite, yet
he sees things much the same way.
“If you’re not talking about social issues or red meat issues for your
primary, the root of most of the bills we deal with are about making
somebody the most money,” said Jenne, who is serving in his eighth year.
If legislators propose bills that are opposed by those with lobbying
heft and financial clout, they rarely gets traction, he said. “The
monied interests you’re going up against have just too many people in
their pocket to take those votes.”
If you’re not talking
about social issues or red meat issues for your primary, the root of
most of the bills we deal with are about making somebody the most money.
Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach
The newest player in the legislative turf battles is
the medical marijuana industry. Two years ago, the industry did not
exist in Florida, but a measure pushed by families of children with
intractable epilepsy opened the door to the cultivation of non-euphoric
strains of cannabis.
Five companies were awarded licenses in November to grow and distribute
the new low-THC forms of the drug and some have now hired lobbyists.
Costa Farms, a giant Miami-based grower of fruits and vegetables, wants
to expand the list of ailments for which low-THC marijuana can be
prescribed so it can broaden its market. It gave $88,000 to the
political committees of the top players, including $35,000 each to the
sponsors of their bills — Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island and Rep.
Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar.
Brandes, who objects to the protectionist framework of the original
marijuana bill, has proposed legislation to repeal the law that limits
the number of growers to five. His bill has not been scheduled for a
“We have created a regulatory market that is anything but free market,”
he said. “We have issued the same amount of licenses as Willy Wonka gave
in golden tickets. You have made five families wealthy, and they will
fight forever to prevent any change to the regulatory structure.”
The power of the purse also has an effect on which bills don’t move.
A $3 billion gambling deal negotiated between Gov. Rick Scott and the
Seminole Tribe of Florida is caught in a tug-of-war over the future of
gaming expansion as Florida’s horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons
seek the ability to offer new forms of gaming while the tribe wants to
retain its monopoly over games like blackjack and slots.
The pari-mutuels have written checks totaling $642,659 in the past six
months and want lawmakers to revise the agreement. The Palm Beach Kennel
Club — which won a provision in the compact to get slot machines — has
raised $188,000 of that amount.
Meanwhile, the tribe has given legislators $388,000 since January to
help earn support for the agreement, known as the compact, and Disney,
which opposes gambling but believes the compact can suppress gaming
expansion, has given legislators $1.1 million since July. The proposal
will be debated in both chambers but is not expected to be resolved this
The state’s largest utilities have also worked to kill bills that pose a
threat to their monopoly control.
Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, has filed one of a handful of bills
that would open the state’s energy market to solar energy competition by
allowing homeowners and businesses to lease their rooftops to companies
that generate solar power and sell it back to the grid. The proposal
does essentially what a proposed constitutional amendment being pushed
by Floridians for Solar Choice would do, but it also allows regulators
to charge solar users for the cost of maintaining the grid.
Costello is not optimistic. “Even if the bill gets heard, it will not
make it to the finish line,” he said. “That’s because the industry does
not want it. That’s a pretty high hurdle.”
Florida Power & Light, the largest utility in Florida, gave $2.3 million
to legislative campaigns, and Duke Energy, the second-largest company,
gave $807,000, since July.
FPL gave another $911,500 to the business lobbying group Associated
Industries of Florida, and $210,00 to the Florida Chamber of Commerce to
distribute to legislators and their political committees — effectively
increasing the company’s reach but appearing to dilute its
The contributions were generous and wide-ranging. Since July, for
example, Miami Democratic Rep. Kionne McGhee raised $20,050 in his
political committee, Florida Standing United PC, and $15,000 of it came
from FPL and AIF.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, who is retiring this year from the
Legislature because of term limits but is widely expected to run for
agriculture commissioner, received the most from the industry: $75,000
from FPL and $40,000 from Duke Energy.
When asked about the issue, he said his main concern is making sure the
utilities get paid for their investment in the grid — the chief argument
made by the industry and addressed by Costello’s bill.
FPL also financed a $5,000 fundraiser for Crisafulli in December, and
Duke Energy lent its skybox suite at a Tampa Bay Rays game in September
to Senate budget chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon — a contribution valued at
$6,356. Duke Energy also supplied sporting tickets, food and hosted
events for both Republican and Democratic party events last fall.
Is this how Florida voters want their legislators to decide what issues
are top priorities? According to the annual Sunshine State Survey
conducted by the University of South Florida and Nielsen polling, the
top five issues of concern for Floridians are the economy, education,
crime, immigration and the environment, including oil drilling.
House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, agrees
with Brandes and Jenne that the way the Legislature sets its priorities
needs changing, and he blames both industry and the Republican-led
Legislature for passing laws that perpetuate self-interested politics
and create barriers to free-market competition.
“I get that you are pro-business but, what matters, is being pro
free-market,” Corcoran, who will be House speaker next year, told a
gathering of Florida Chamber of Commerce executives at the Capitol last
week. “If we’re pro free-market, everyone will do well. But when you’re
championing for those things that protect you, the result is horrible.”
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, echoed a similar theme in his
opening day speech to his chamber.
“It’s so easy to come up here and lose sight of why you ran for office
in the first place,” he said. “When I first ran for office in 1999, I
didn’t campaign on the most recent vendor fight or the most recent
lobbyist issue that was going to come up. I campaigned on things that I
He urged them to “remember why you ran for office. What was the role of
government that you campaigned on and what did you want to accomplish”
and he vowed to help them do that.
But while Gardiner succeeded in getting his priority issue passed — two
bills that create opportunities for special needs students and adults —
the vendor fights won’t go away, even without the campaign cash.
One of Gardiner’s lifelong friends, Paul Mears III, is president of
Orlando’s largest taxi and transit business, Mears Transportation Group.
The company has been a long-time supporter of Gardiner, giving more than
$150,000 to the Republican Party in the years he was in leadership, and
Mears’ father has called Uber an “existential threat” to the family’s
“Every member comes up here with different motivations,” concludes
Brandes, who is championing Uber’s position on the ride-share issue, and
he argued that lawmakers must update their approach to policymaking the
way technology is forcing taxi companies, auto manufacturers, utilities
and other industries to change.
Lawmakers must stop picking winners and losers, “or the process will
break down,” he warns. “We’re in this time between the lightning and the
thunder. We see change coming rapidly but we can’t yet see the
Here’s a look at contributions to legislators’ campaign accounts from
July 1 to Dec. 30.
Agriculture: $2.1 million
Tribe: $388,000* (from Jan. 1)
Beach Kennel Club: $188,000
Computer/Motorola Solutions: $88,500
Marijuana/Costa Farms: $88,000
Total spent to influence lawmakers
Here’s a look at what various political groups collected in contributions
from July 1 to Dec. 30.
Legislative campaigns (committees, campaigns): $28.5 million
Legislative political committees: $9.5 million
House campaigns: $6 million
Republican Party of Florida: $4.3 million
Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee: $3.2 million
Senate campaigns: $3 million
Democratic Party: $2.1 million
Florida Division of Elections, Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau analysis