Article by Jason Garcia, The Orlando Sentinel May 21, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - Local governments across Florida are spending millions of dollars lobbying the Florida Legislature this year as they battle efforts by lawmakers to slash billions of dollars in property taxes.
An Orlando Sentinel review of recent state records shows that during the first three months of this year,
Nearly three dozen Central Florida governments were among those pouring money into the lawmaking process, from
The money paid for an elite roster of lobbyists that includes former lawmakers, governor's office aides and other insiders, many of whom were intimately involved in the property-tax fight that consumed the Legislature during its 60-day regular session this spring.
Lawmakers were unable to agree on property-tax changes and have been forced to schedule a special session beginning June 12 to tackle the issue again.
Critics call the lobbying efforts a perfect example of overspending by cities and counties that experienced a property-tax windfall during the state's recent real-estate boom.
"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, co-chairman of the anti-tax group Floridians for Property Tax Reform.
Cities and counties, however, say lobbying is a necessary investment -- and that it isn't just about fighting property-tax cuts.
They say lobbyists help them compete for millions of dollars in state grants handed out for everything from sewer lines to road construction, as well as monitor the thousands of bills legislators debate every year, many of which have significant impacts on local governments.
"It's money well-spent," said Volusia County Chairman Frank Bruno, whose government spent from $50,000 to $70,000 on lobbyists in three months.
"Lobbyists are very important to keep us informed as to what the Legislature is doing. It also enables the Legislature to have our input," Bruno added. "Those folks up there cannot be operating in a vacuum."
Year-old disclosure law
The records released last week were made available under a year-old state law requiring Tallahassee's more than 2,000 lobbyists to disclose details about their fees. The reports must list each client who hires a lobbying firm and how much it paid. But the range is so wide -- from $1.7 million to $4.3 million -- because fees are reported in broad ranges rather than exact figures.
The first wave of reports covers Jan. 1 through March 31, or about halfway through the 60-day legislative session. They cover only contract lobbyists, not in-house lobbyists who are employed directly by a business or a government.
As they were a year ago, utilities such as cable, power and phone companies were among the heaviest spenders in the $20 million to $48 million of legislative lobbying expenses that were reported.
Records show that BellSouth, for instance, spent $800,000 to $1.1 million lobbying the Legislature. It and other telecom giants were battling cable companies for a measure designed to help phone companies break into the cable business. The Legislature approved the bill, and Gov. Charlie Crist signed it last week.
But the amount spent on lobbyists by local government is drawing particular attention in light of the property-tax debate.
The Sentinel's review focused on cities, counties and school boards, as well as related countywide agencies, such as sheriffs' and court clerks' offices. It did not include other local governments, such as hospital districts or airport authorities, or groups such as the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida League of Cities.
But Central Florida communities also paid handsomely for access in
Is 'diet' needed?
For critics of local government spending, the lobbying expenses offer easy fodder.
"I think it's clear that, as tax reform does take place, [is] what they can cut first," said Senate Finance and Tax Chairman Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who has repeatedly said cities and counties need to be put on a "diet."
Still, local officials say that lobbyist spending, as ripe a target as it might be, is a crucial expense.
It's especially important now as lawmakers weigh property-tax plans that could slash billions of dollars from local government tax rolls, Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty said.
Crotty has warned that
"This session is the greatest example of why" local governments need lobbyists, said Crotty, a former state legislator. "If you're from
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