TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ The recession appears to be over for Tallahassee lobbyists. Casino operators, utilities, health care companies and agricultural companies shelled out millions of dollars during the first half of the year to lobby the Florida Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott and other top state officials.
Many of the corporations that spent the most were those seeking help from the Republican-controlled Legislature to either pass or kill bills during the spring legislative session.
Lobbyists were required to file new reports by Sunday that disclosed how much they were paid during the second quarter of 2011. The new totals show that legislative lobbyists earned as much as $64.8 million in the first six months of this year. That's an increase over 2010 when reports showed lobbyists were paid nearly $62.6 million.
Last year lobbyists reported that their income had dipped for the first time since 2007. But veteran lobbyists say they have noticed that has changed.
“Folks are beginning to say that `we now understand that even during bad times we need to have good representation','' said Brian Ballard, a well-known Tallahassee lobbyist whose firm earned more than $2 million during the first half of 2011. “It's indicative I hope of a bettering economy.''
The upturn in spending also coincided with the arrival of Scott, a business executive critical of government regulation, as well as a Republican-dominated Legislature with a lengthy agenda. This past year state legislators passed substantial legislation dealing with everything from growth management, merit pay for teachers and the $22 billion Medicaid program.
The reports filed by lobbyists show that as much as $108 million was spent lobbying both the Legislature and the executive branches during the first half of the year when lawmakers were in session. The executive branch not only includes Scott, but other state elected officials such as Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.
One of the lobbying firms whose reported income increased this year over last year was The Rubin Group. The president of the Fort Lauderdale-based firm is Bill Rubin, a long-time friend of Scott whose friendship dates back to when Scott ran a hospital chain. The firm reported earning at least $1 million for representing health maintenance organizations, utilities and a South Florida company opposed to legislation that would cap how much doctors could charge to dispense drugs to workers' compensation patients.
The figures reported by lobbyists are not exact and instead they report a range of how much they are paid by various corporations. Additionally, some lobbying firms report the same information twice, once for the Legislature and once for the executive branch, meaning the overall total could be inflated. State law requires random audits of lobbying firms but the state has never enacted the requirement.
Still the reports show that various companies paid tens of thousands of dollars for lobbyists. Some of the top spenders include Las Vegas Sands, Florida Power & Light, U.S. Sugar Corporation and Dosal Tobacco. Las Vegas Sands, which is eager to bring convention center hotels and casinos to Florida, reported spending at least $250,000 to hire a team of lobbyists this year.
The casino operator found itself battling other gambling companies and was unsuccessful in getting a bill passed to allow “destination resort'' casinos. The company plans to try again next year said Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands. He said the reason the casino operator invested money in lobbying the Legislature is because the company contends that South Florida and Miami are an “underserved convention market.''
“The Miami market fits their convention-based business model,'' Iarossi said. “They are willing to take the shot for at least one more session.''