State Senate panel OK's bill that would lift ban on lobbyist gifts listen04/11/11 Kate Bradshaw
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In Tallahassee today a Senate ethics panel advanced a bill that would do away with a ban on gifts from lobbyist. Unlike most other controversial items on the legislature’s plate this session, it garnered support from Republicans and Democrats.
Tallahassee Mayor John Marks urged the Senate Rules Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections to once again allow lobbyists to buy lunch for lawmakers. He said it’s about jobs.
"Since the legislative expenditure ban was adopted in 2005 the restaurant and hospitality sectors of my city and the local economy it has receded and has had a dramatic, dramatic, decline. Job losses have been significant and business owners are...they're really desperate for some sort of relief. Especially now. "
The ban goes back to 2005. Current law prohibits lobbyists, or even employees within industries that have lobbyists, from buying anything for a state lawmaker – even a cup of coffee. Venice Republican Nancy Detert said this makes for some awkward situations.
A friend of mine wants to take me to lunch and she's a realtor. I tell her I have to pay for my own lunch and she says 'why? I'm not a lobbyist?' 'No, but your organization has a lobbyist' And there's the rub that people don't understand."
Treasure Island Republican Dennis Jones proposed the bill, which would allow gifts of $25 or less to go unreported, and require lawmakers to report anything between $25 and $100 that’s given to them. Any gift exceeding $100 in value would require approval by the House Speaker or Senate President. He said it’s ridiculous that a lobbyist can indirectly give a boatload of money to candidates by way of shadowy 527 organizations, but he or she can’t buy a cup of coffee for a lawmaker.
"I'm somewhat amazed with some of our members as they have questions about this bill and yet they have their own 527 where, after election, they won't go to dinner but they'll take 10, 20 thousand dollars, yet the public doesn't know it."
Democratic Tampa Senator Arthenia Joyner said the notion that a lawmaker could be swayed by a $25 lunch is insulting.
"I actually resent someone thinking that I can be bought for a cup of coffee, a bottle of water or $25 meal. The people who sent me here know that I am here taking care of business on their behalf."
Hollywood Democrat Eleanor Sobel voted against it. She said it won’t scrub Tallahassee of its reputation for being profoundly corrupt.
"Elected officials are surrounded or named to a culture of corruption. We have to clean up our image."
Republican Gainesville Senator Steve Oelrich said he thinks the bill is a good idea, but the timing is bad. He said to pass a bill the public will likely perceive as promoting extravagance while the legislature drastically cuts state services and jobs probably wouldn’t boost one’s chances of reelection.
"So it's a cumbersome situation, I'd love to support this, the timing, I think we'd get, quite frankly, roasted in the press."
State Senator Dennis Jones admitted that he doesn’t have to worry about his next campaign, given that he’s retiring after his current term. The bill, known as Senate Bill 1322, still needs a full senate vote. The proposal’s passage through committee comes two and a half weeks after the senate cleared a bill lifting a ban on so-called leadership funds. Effective immediately after its passage, it allows the House Speaker and Senate President to raise unlimited amounts of money they can funnel into the political campaign of their choice.