Florida governments hiring costly lobbyists to thwart property
Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel
Garcia and Mark Hollis
Published May 21, 2007
-- Local governments across Florida are spending wads of taxpayer money --
possibly millions -- lobbying the Legislature as they battle members'
efforts to slash property taxes.
A review of state records shows that during the first three months of this
year, cities, counties and school boards spent at least $1.7 million, and
perhaps as much as $4.3 million, retaining lobbyists to influence the
Local governments in Broward and Palm Beach counties alone spent between
$470,000 and $1.2 million during the period. And those sums were just for
outside lobbyists, not for legislative directors or others who are
employed directly by local governments.
City governments throughout South Florida were among those pouring money
into the lawmaking process, with between $190,000 and $610,000 spent by
cities in Broward; and from $100,000 to $230,000 spent by Palm Beach
Other South Florida governments also were among the biggest spenders. For
instance, Miami spent as much as $168,000 on more than a dozen lobbyists,
while Miami-Dade County spent as much as $122,000.
The records were made available under a year-old state law requiring
Tallahassee's more than 2,000 lobbyists to disclose details about their
work. They must identify their clients and how much they paid, although
the fees are reported in ranges rather than exact figures.
For instance, the Broward County government reported spending between
$60,000 and $130,000 in January, February and March.
The local governments have fielded an elite roster of hired guns,
including former lawmakers, governor's aides and other insiders, many of
whom were intimately involved in the property tax fight that consumed the
Legislature this spring. Legislators failed to agree on much of anything
and will return to try again June 12.
Critics call the lobbying a casebook example of overspending by cities and
counties that must be pruned.
"The fact is that all of these cities and counties -- for the most
part -- have bloated budgets, and they've been spending taxpayer money
over the last five years like drunken sailors," said Jose Cancela, of
Miami, co-chairman of Floridians for Property Tax Reform.
In an ordinary year, Palm Beach County spends $385,000 on lobbyists with
eight firms, according to Todd Bonlarron, the county's legislative affairs
director, whose $110,000 annual salary and business expenses aren't
included. The new reports say the county spent between $50,000 and
$120,000 on outside lobbyists in the first quarter of 2007.
Bonlarron and other local government officials say lobbying is a necessary
expense, and not just to protect property tax revenue. Lobbyists monitor
the progress of thousands of bills, many of which could affect local
Also, lobbyists help cities and counties compete for millions of dollars
in state grants for everything from sewer lines to road construction.
This year, "a record number of funds came back to Palm Beach
County," Bonlarron said. He said there is a correlation between what
is spent on lobbying "and what local residents derive from the
The review of lobbying expenses focused on cities, counties and school
boards, as well as countywide agencies like sheriff's and court clerk's
offices. It did not include other local bodies, such as hospital districts
or airport authorities, or professional groups such as the Florida
Association of Counties and the League of Cities.
For critics of local government spending, the lobbying expenses offer easy
"I think it certainly should be on the list on where they cut
back," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. Still, Bogdanoff
acknowledged she and other legislators benefit from local government
lobbyists. "The most valuable role that these lobbyists play is
communications," she said. "They tell [local officials] what's
really happening in Tallahassee."
Ron Book, a veteran lobbyist for more than 30 local governments in South
Florida, including those of Miramar, Cooper City, Tamarac, Lauderdale
Lakes and Royal Palm Beach, said his clients get more than their money's
"Hiring me is a rationale and responsible decision," he said,
"and virtually in every instance I have always produced significant
and substantial returns for the taxpayers."
Local governments "are entitled to the same quality of representation
as private companies," Book said. Otherwise, he said, local issues
and spending priorities will "get lost in the legislative