Great Scott contributor Florida Blue wonders where its money went

Herald/TimesTallahassee BureauJuly 22, 2013 

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, addressed the Manatee Chamber of Commerce lunch in 2013 at the Bradenton Country Club. JIM DE LA/Bradenton Herald

TALLAHASSEE -- Health insurance giant Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida gave more money to Florida campaigns than any other single entity in the 2012 election cycle -- $4.8 million -- and the company is already the largest contributor in the current cycle, a Herald/Times analysis has found.

Company officials say the contributions, which include $867,000 to Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature since January, are an investment in like-minded candidates as Blue Cross works to implement the Affordable Care Act.

But when it comes to the company's top priority -- expanding Medicaid to cover 1 million more uninsured Floridians -- the health care giant's outsized investment has fallen flat.

Legislators walked away from extending Medicaid coverage to Florida residents at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level after House leaders fiercely resisted the option. Blue Cross and Blue Shield, doing business as Florida Blue, contracts with the state to run a Medicaid-managed care program expected to net$50 billion over 10 years through Medicaid expansion.

"With regard to Medicaid, we do have a difference of opinion with a lot of the folks we have supported in the past," said Jason Altmire, vice president of public policy government and community affairs for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. He said the company hopes to renew the pitch for Medicaid expansion next session.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield is not the only company to invest heavily in the political process only to have its top legislative priority thwarted last year.

Hospitals, nursing homes and the ill-fated Internet café industry all invested heavily in the governor and legislators this year but went home empty.

Other large donors such as U.S. Sugar, the Florida Optometry Association and the Florida Medical Association saw political investments pay off as lawmakers passed long-sought legislation to make it easier for them to do business in Florida.

A common denominator for most of those turned away: the Florida House, where most top contributor initiatives died.

"I didn't keep track; I don't know if we were responsible for killing those bills or not," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "If it goes against our principles -- like Medicaid expansion -- I don't care how much they gave. It has to be right for Florida."

By contrast, big contributors had an easier time moving their agenda through the Senate.

A bill by state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, to make it more difficult to sue nursing homes for neglect was a top priority of the nursing home industry, which gave more than $1 million in the last cycle. The bill passed every committee in the Senate but was never heard in the House.

The Internet café industry started the session with high hopes after having donated more than $1.4 million to legislative coffers over the last two years. The House had passed legislation last year to outlaw their machines but the Senate resisted and was poised this year to pass legislation to keep them alive one more year and enact regulations next year.

Those plans were squelched when federal and state prosecutors arrested the owners and operators of Allied Veterans of Florida, a purported charity organization authorities said secretly operated electronic slot machines

across the state through Internet cafés.

In other cases, top contributors succeeded by fending off legislation.

Florida Power & Light, which gave $2.6 million in the 2012 election cycle and is the second-largest contributor this year with $717,000, persuaded legislators to water down legislation to repeal the fee attached to electric bills that pays for controversial nuclear power plants before they are built.

Disney, which gave$2.7 million in the 2012 campaign season, persuaded the governor and lawmakers to pass a bill that would override efforts by Orlando officials to enact local wage and benefits laws.

Mark Wilson, executive director of the Florida Chamber, which, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, spent $3.9 million and made litigation reform its top priority, said the chamber didn't pass all its priorities but the political investments went into electing candidates and the chamber succeeded in 110 of the 118 campaigns in which it was involved.

"Many of the candidates we supported did not support our position on those issues," he said. "Does that mean our members didn't get their money's worth? I don't see it that way."

And Blue Cross and Blue Shield succeeded in persuading legislators to kill a proposal by state Sen. Joe Negron to eliminate a tax credit for the insurance industry and use the money to roll back increases in fees for driver licenses and auto tags, a proposal that would have cost Florida Blue policyholders $35 million a year, Altmire said.

Florida Blue and FPL are among the top contributors to Gov. Rick Scott's political committee as it awaits important decisions from the executive branch.

Two weeks after Scottannounced his support for Medicaid expansion, Blue Cross and Blue Shield sent his political committee, Let's Get to Work, a check for $237,500.

"The governor showed leadership and took a political risk and took some political hits because of it," Altmire said. "We are grateful he took the strong stance that he did."

Shortly after the Public Service Nominating Council announced its schedule for selecting the candidates for the Public Service Commission -- Scott can appoint two seats -- FPL sent a check to the governor's political committee for $250,000. FPL declined comment.

And Heritage Property & Casualty Insurance, which was given $52 million to take over 60,000 policies from Citizens Property Insurance in a controversial deal, sent the governor a check for $110,000 as their lobbyists were seeking the governor's support. Scott has refrained from criticizing the deal.

Weatherford, who spent the last year raising funds for the 2012 elections in which every House seat was up for re-election because of redistricting, said top contributors don't always get what they want.

"What most people want is an opportunity to tell their story," he said. "They're making an investment in you. You're not making an investment in them."

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