Why We Need A Lobbyist Gift Ban

BY BUDDY NEVINS

 

Sometimes there is a quote so good I’ve got to share it.

This is the late legislative strongman Dempsey Barron talking to Tampa Bay Times’ Lucy Morgan about the proposed ban of freebee’s from lobbyists. It was sent to me by a reader:

“I went out for a free meal last night,” (Dempsey) Barron said. “I ate a 5-pound steak, a baked potato, drank a gallon of liquor, had an after-dinner drink and a quart of ice cream and Kahlua. This morning I feel like a bouquet of dog a–es. So write me up and save me from all this. Save me from myself.”

 

dempsey barron

State Sen. Dempsey Barron, D-Panama City, calling for repeal of Florida’s services tax

 

It sums up the atmosphere of Tallahassee – often occurring in the Silver Slipper restaurant which Morgan wrote about when she included that quote here—when I covered it in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Silver Slipper is gone and there is a gift ban for legislators.

Are things any better?

Probably just hidden better.



6 Responses to “Why We Need A Lobbyist Gift Ban”

  1. No More Sponsored Events says:

    Every event held has underwriters or sponsors. If electeds are to truly forgo any in kind gifts, such as food or beverage, they would be unable to attend any events at all. Even if they pay for their food and beverage they are not compensating for the true cost of event attendance. I don’t think any elected is going to sell their vote for a cup of coffee, and we need them to attend events to stay engaged and educated about the public. The extreme lengths we have gone to on this is overkill here in Broward.

  2. Richard J. Kaplan says:

    Not exactly sure how it works, but I hear of these committees that raise funds that can be used by the candidates/legislators to essentially accomplish the same thing. The difference now it is direct money and in-kind, not wining and dining.

  3. Steve Geller says:

    Buddy:

    There is a reasonable middle ground on the lobbyist gift ban, which is the changes that were voted out of Committee in Tallahassee this year (CS SB 1634). The changes were proposed by Senator Tom Lee, who was the Senate President who passed the original lobbyist gift ban, and who recognized that some minor changes were necessary.

    The example that you gave of Senator Barron was what the public objected to. They didn’t like lobbyists paying for expensive private dinners with legislators, and that part of the gift ban should stay in place. There are some minor, technical changes that would help.

    The two most important changes are also the simplest. First, provide an exception to the gift ban for non-alcoholic beverages. If you’re at a meeting, and someone offers you a cop of coffee or a glass of water (or, since this is Florida, a glass of Orange Juice), let the elected official accept.

    The second issue is to exempt government to government functions. I’ll use the Legislature as an example, but the same thing applies to local government.

    Before the gift ban, other governmental agencies such as Cities, County Governments, State Universities or Community Colleges, Hospital Districts, Expressway, Airport, or Port Authorities, etc. could invite legislators to lunch meetings with the officials from the other governmental agencies. With so many different agencies, and some legislators representing multiple counties, it was not uncommon to be invited to 15 or 20 breakfast or lunch meetings a year. It is important for public policy makers to meet with other public policy makers where they have common constituents. With Legislator’s salary being less than $30,000/year, and many City Commissioners earning less, I have seen a marked decline in attendance at intergovernmental breakfast and lunch meetings since the Gift Ban. No one should object to public policy makers attending such meetings, where the host organization provides the food or simply snacks at the meetings.

    Please note that this should be limited to food or drinks provided by the other governmental body itself, and should not include anything provided by a lobbyist for the governmental entities.

    The third change passed by the Senate Committee provided a de minimis exception. Let’s use Autism Speaks as an example. They have/had a lobbyist. If constituents came by, wanting to deliver a blue or multi-colored ribbon to wear, the elected should be required to reject it under current law. People would deliver magnets, kids would create things, and electeds have to reject them. While I personally don’t consider this to be a crucial item, I don’t believe a $2, $5, or $10 minimum value exception would cause harm.

    The last item that the Senate Committee passed may be controversial, but I think that it’s a good idea. If the Teachers, Engineers, Librarians, Cattlemen, Doctors, Lawyers, Buthchers, Bakers, or Candlestick Makers go to Tallahassee, and have a reception, or have their annual lunch/dinner meeting where they invite the local elected officials, it’s a good idea for the electeds to attend their functions to learn about their issues, and listen to their concerns. Anyone that has ever attended these functions knows that they’re not particularly enjoyable, but attending them is part of the duties of an elected official, listening to their constituents. No elected official in their right minds would possibly be willing to pay $100, $150, or more to attend these functions that they really don’t want to go to anyway, and where the banquet food is never that good.

    In order to resolve this issue, The Senate Committee determined that if the Elected official gave advance public notice of their intention to attend such a function by posting notice in the same location that all other notices need to be posted, and the function that they attended was open to the press, that this would be an additional exception to the Gift Ban.

    SB 1634 may not be the only way of dealing with this issue, but it certainly is one way of keeping the spirit of the Gift Ban, while dealing with some of the unintended consequences.

    FROM BUDDY:

    These are sensible suggestions by Steve Geller.

    I never had the opportunity to dine with Sen. Barron, but I sat in the Silver Slipper a number of times at a table where lobbyists plied legislators with endless liquor and thick, juicy steaks (I, or should I say The Sun-Sentinel, paid for my own meal on a separate check.) It was an abuse and a quick way to buy access to these folks.

    The current law in Tallahassee goes too far.

    I believe the Broward ethics law, however, is needed — especially the portions that ban local pols from lobbying other governments in Broward.

    In fact, the Broward ethics law should be expanded to the School Board. One attempt to do so in the past was killed by the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich who was Democratic Senate Leader at the time. She was reportedly stopping the measure as a favor for her daughter, School Board member Laurie Rich Levinson.

  4. Truth says:

    The truth is that all of the “exemptions” with the exception of the non-alcoholic drink, are exempted by joint custom and practice and interpretive guidance from the speaker and president. Being that the legislature is the sole judge of violations, its not necessary to tinker with the law.
    There is, in practice, a reasonableness standard applied to the “value of goods.”
    If I just ran a race and am thirsty, a cup of water is worth a fortune. No reasonable person expects a legislator to reject a drink of water on a hot day because its “free”

  5. Independent says:

    However, I think that getting a free bottle of water on a hot day that is free, even if free to the general public, is a violation for City and County people under the Broward Ethics Law, if it comes a city, county or other business that does anything with that government.

    That was something that came up at the County meeting discussing it, and I have seen elected officials refusing water because of it.

    So it is clear there is a different standard for locally elected, state elected and federal elected people. Does that make sense? The higher you go the less restrictive “gifts” are.

  6. Truth says:

    There is actually one fix that is probably warranted, and that’s the “free and open to the public” exemption, again by rule and custom, not by law. Still, as the rule currently reads if Fort Lauderdale for example, hosted a free concert at the Band shell on himmershee, it would technically be a violation for a legislator to attend without paying his pro-ratia share, even if the public could attend free. The only “free and open to the public exemption” by rule or custom must take place on Adams street or on the capitol courtyard, and be widely publicized.

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