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Sunday, April 17, 2011

How corporations bought the Florida Legislature

From the Orlando Sentinel

by Aaron Deslatte

TALLAHASSEE — With a former corporate executive in Gov. Rick Scott and growing Republican supermajorities controlling the Legislature, Florida is poised to enact sweeping "pro-business" and deregulatory changes in the next three weeks.

And Florida's major corporations, regulated industries and business-backed interest groups have played an outsized role in making that happen.

Of the 30 largest political contributors in Florida this year, all but two are corporations or business-backed interest groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, governed and funded by corporate executives with financial stakes in the outcome of the legislative session.

An Orlando Sentinel analysis of campaign-finance data released last week shows the top two dozen companies and interest groups gave a combined $4.2 million during the first three months of 2011 — a bit more than $500,000 to Democrats and the rest to the Republican Party of Florida, individual GOP lawmakers or the political funds they control.

Those same 30 largest Florida contributors combined to pour more than $45 million into the 2010 elections, the vast majority of the money put to use for Republicans.

It has paid off.

Business interest groups in Tallahassee are already describing this year as a "generational opportunity" to pass sweeping "free-market"' reforms that have sat on their shelves for years.

From new restrictions on personal-injury lawsuits against automakers, limits on unemployment pay and benefit cuts for public workers to a wave of tax breaks for individual companies, the Legislature is advancing virtually the entire business-lobby playbook this session — measures that in previous years would have been too polarizing to pass.

Florida's 25-year-old growth-management act is headed toward repeal, and the state's varied economic-development agencies promoting space, sports, tourism and minority entrepreneurs are about to be folded in one new bureaucracy that would give Scott broader power to lure companies to the state with taxpayer incentives.

And many of the companies and interests poised to win big — along with labor unions staring at humbling losses this session — are shifting the vast majority of their political giving to Republicans.

The list of big givers includes Walt Disney Co., which gave $188,010 and has successfully lobbied to maintain tax advantages for online travel companies, eliminate some restrictions on sales contracts and preserve existing time-share regulations.

Universal Orlando chipped in $181,549, almost all of it an "in-kind contribution," by providing its theme parks to the Republican Party of Florida to host a fundraising event. The company has been pushing HB 7203 by Rep. Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, which critics say would steer tax breaks for film and television production to its own studios.

And the Orlando-based Florida Association of Realtors — which wants to put a property-tax-cutting amendment on the ballot next year — coughed up $275,500, including $25,000 for a political account that House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, created in February.

Health-care and health-insurance groups trying to help mold a mammoth reform of the $21 billion Medicaid program are contributing the heaviest to Tallahassee politicians this year — with Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Florida topping the list, with $449,500.

Florida Power & Light is second at $325,611 — all but $5,600 of it to the state Republican Party, GOP lawmakers and the war chests of legislative leaders such as House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. TECO and Progress Energy gave an additional $423,000 to candidates and political parties.

FPL and other investor-owned utilities have been pushing for control of the solar market in Florida by seeking legislative permission to tax customers to pay for new solar plants.

The GEO Group, a Boca Raton-based private-prison company, has given $106,000 — all but $8,000 of it to the GOP — while Scott and lawmakers have pushed plans to privatize South Florida prisons housing 16,000 inmates. Both the House and Senate have included privatization plans in their competing budgets.

Business groups such as the Florida Chamber, Associated Industries of Florida and others say lawmakers are responding to the will of voters, who elected Scott and historic supermajorities of Republicans in November.

But those same groups have invested millions of dollars in recent years to recruit and support candidates to run for vacant House or Senate seats.

The Chamber spent about $1.5 million alone to help elect Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a former House speaker targeted by state trial lawyers in a nasty special election in 2009.

Last year, Thrasher pushed a contentious teacher-tenure bill vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist and won the Chamber's "Legislator of the Year" award.

Nearly half of the current Legislature — 76 House and Senate members, mostly Republicans — was interviewed, endorsed and backed financially by the Florida Chamber last year.

The powerful business group, whose governing board includes Publix Super Markets, Disney, developers Alico and A. Duda & Sons Inc. and many other companies, runs its own research institute and year-round campaign operations. Last year, the Chamber steered an all-time high of $5.5 million into state elections — prompting the group to boast afterward that it was leading a revival of "classic American-style capitalism."

So far this year, the Chamber has given $257,000 to lawmakers and the GOP —and $1,500 to Democrats.

"We clearly are in a moment in time — and I don't know if it will last another month or decade — where the House, Senate, governor, Chamber and voters are generally in alignment about what we should do to the role and scope of government," Chamber President Mark Wilson said.

"I don't know whether this alignment is going to be here for months or for years, but our job is to do as much as we can."

Many of the same companies who wrote big checks also paid lobbyists to work the Capitol hallways. About 2,800 clients paid lobbyists $115 million last year to try to influence the actions of lawmakers.

Among the biggest was AT&T, which is pushing a phone bill (SB 1524/HB 1231) that would allow rate hikes and revoke most of the Public Service Commission's remaining power over the telecommunications sector. The company spent $1.7 million on legislative lobbyists last year, $1.4 million on last year's campaigns, and already has contributed $177,847 this year.

"The breadth and scope of issues that the business community has is absolutely amazing," AIF President Barney Bishop said. His lobbying team — which cost $499,000 last year — is tracking every vote on 193 different "high-priority" bills this spring for its membership.

AIF has been tracking bills and assigned a "score" to the Legislature on business issues since 1979. In 2006, Gov. Jeb Bush's last year in office, the Legislature scored a 94, its highest-ever grade. In the four years since, that score has gradually declined, but Bishop said he expects it to rebound this spring.

One of his top priorities is a bill (SB 142/HB 201) for Ford Motor Co., which has cleared the Senate and is close to a House floor vote, to change the way juries apportion legal liabilities in auto-accident lawsuits.

Bishop said overturning a 10-year precedent that prevents juries from considering the driver's condition in wrecks where auto defects cause injuries is needed because Ford's U.S. rivals, Chrysler and General Motors, had their legal liabilities wiped clean by their bankruptcy filings.

"This is a level playing field for Ford Motor Co.," Bishop said.

This spring, the Chamber has 30 lobbyists working 65 bills, including social issues such as expanding school vouchers; merit pay for teachers; immigration; and court changes, including revamping the state Supreme Court to allow Scott to name three more justices.

"They are an invaluable ally," said Rep. Mike Horner, a Kissimmee Republican running several major bills that the business lobby is pushing, including new limits on medical malpractice lawsuits, auto-collision payouts and the AT&T deregulatory bill.

"My door is always open to the Chamber, and they were helpful during my election," Horner said. "But we ran on creating jobs. So the idea that it looks like we may have a pro-business session shouldn't surprise anybody."

Florida Education Association lawyer Ron Meyer said many of the issues the business lobby is touting will wind up in protracted court fights, including attempts to expand school vouchers, the teacher-merit-pay bill Scott has already signed, and a measure to ban deduction of union dues from government-worker paychecks that's nearing passage.

"When somebody goes wildly overreaching, we still do have a judicial system that provides checks and balances," Meyer said. "I suspect the courts are going to be very busy — if they're left in existence following the session."

But even traditional Democratic givers — gaming concerns such as Isle of Capri Casinos and Churchill Downs ($141,000 combined this year), and public-employee unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ($78,500) — have shifted their bets to Republicans.

AFSCME legislative director Doug Martin said that, before his union shifted its giving to the GOP, it had been "completely frozen out of any meaningful policy" input. Still, the union-dues bill — a measure business groups concede is designed to drain their union enemies of cash to support candidates and communicate with voters — seems headed for passage.

Business groups and companies "have spent tons of money electing the most pro-corporate legislators they can find," Martin said. "So they seem to be getting a good return on the investment." or 407-420-5441. or 850-222-5564.,0,278259.story?page=2

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