News Service of Florida: Tallahassee Lawmakers Try to Carve Out Gift Ban Exemption

Feb 17, 2009


THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 16, 2009……. Two Tallahassee lawmakers have filed measures that would put a crack in the law banning lobbyists’ gifts to legislators, partly in an effort to jump start local restaurant business.

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, and Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, have both proposed legislation (HB 901, SB 1506) that would allow lobbyists to spend up to $20 on a lawmaker for food or drinks at a meeting or public event.

That would put a slight fracture in the state’s gift ban, passed in 2005, that prohibits lobbyists for paying for food and drink for any lawmaker. The capital city’s restaurateurs say the law has damaged business, but proponents of the ban argue it keeps lobbyists from buying lawmakers’ votes.

Rehwinkel Vasilinda said the $20 cap would stave off any impropriety between lobbyists and lawmakers.

“If anybody’s vote is bought for $20, I think they are very, very sorry and I think they ought not to be in office,” Rehwinkel Vasilinda said.

Lawson and former state. Rep. Lorrane Ausley, D-Tallahassee, filed similar legislation last year, but it never made it to a vote in either legislative chamber.

How a bill would fare in a year where the Legislature’s ethics have come under scrutiny is unknown. Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, came under fire for steering millions of dollars to Northwest Florida State College and then accepting a job from the school. Late last month he announced he would step down as speaker to deal with a pending legal case surrounding his actions.

“I thought about filing this prior to the present sort-of ethics cloud that has come over the Legislature,” Rehwinkel Vasilinda said. “I don’t know if that helps it or hurts it. This is nothing that is going to make a difference in anybody’s ethical makeup.”

The lawmakers said that the measure could have a huge impact on the fiscal outlook of a city that largely depends on politics and government to fuel local business. Lawson called it an “economic stimulus” for the city and potentially other parts of the state as well.

“Can you imagine the number of people we brought into this city during the session who can no longer have these big events?” Lawson said. “Every catering business was busy and we need that.”

A 2007 study led by a Florida State professor concluded that Tallahassee lost more than $4.1 million or slightly more than $500,000 each week during the March and April 2007 legislative session, based on a review of receipts of transportation services, florists, event meeting planners, bars and restaurants.

“The main cause of this situation is attributed to the inability of lobbyists to expend their business dollars on services related to lobbying legislators using establishments and businesses owned and managed by local service providers,” Florida State Professors Mark Bonn and Julie Harrington wrote in their analysis.

Rehwinkel Vasilinda said in addition to the possible economic benefit, there needs to be “civil discourse” between all of the players in Tallahassee, which includes lobbyists and lawmakers, without an awkward conversation where the lawmaker has to ask the price of the hors d’oeuvres.

“This is not an ethics problem, this is a social nicety I think, and access to people’s elected officials,” she said.

Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists President Carl Adams said he was aware of the proposal, but that the association would not be pushing for its passage.

“We haven’t even taken a position either way,” Adams said. “We probably won’t.”

The association, which has filed a lawsuit against the state over the gift ban, has contended that the state can regulate the lobbying industry but does not have the power to enforce punishment.


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