TALLAHASSEE -- The economy might be down in Florida, but the state Capitol is awash in special interest money.
In the past three months, the Republican Party of Florida and the Florida Democratic Party took in $5.5 million and $894,000, respectively. And the 40 political committees linked to top legislators pulled in nearly $1.8 million more in the last quarter.
Still, there’s more. Every one of the 160 legislative seats is up for grabs this year as part of the once-a-decade process known as redistricting. That means more campaigning and fundraising that, since last year, has pumped $10.75 million into the political system during the 2011-12 election cycle.
The contributors run the gamut from health-insurance giant Blue Cross/Blue Shield to the Malaysian gaming company Genting to Disney World, business groups and physicians -- all of whom drive the agenda in the state Capitol.
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“There’s an incredible appetite for campaign money out there,” said lobbyist Ron Book, who represents dozens of clients and gave $42,500 last quarter.
“The district lines are being drawn, so you probably have 12 to 15 people in the Florida House who will no longer live in their districts, and some could be pitted against each other,” he said. “Then there’s the fact that the economy’s bad, so people need to raise the money while it’s there because you never know what tomorrow will bring. So there’s a full-court press to raise money now.”
Contributing money doesn’t guarantee that a certain special interest will get it what it wants. Instead, contributions act more like a fee that ensures a business or a lobbyist will get a little extra time to pitch and persuade a legislator or statewide elected officer like the governor.
Lawmakers often say they’re not being bought for campaign contributions -- and that the contributors are being into the legislator’s agenda instead. But, in the end, the agenda of the big contributors often suck up loads of time during the lawmaking session, which is slated to begin in January due to the redistricting effort. Most of the money goes to Republicans and their party because they control the governor’s office, Cabinet and the Legislature.
If money talks in the Capitol, Blue Cross/Blue Shield has the most to say.
The insurance company, which is eying a major piece of the $20 billion Medicaid system and manages state employee health care, contributed $752,500 from July 1 to Sept. 30 -- more than any other single entity in the third quarter of 2011. It was the top giver to the Democrats, the Republicans and the special political committees controlled by legislators. In all, Blue Cross has contributed about $1.6 million in 2011.
The company said in a written statement that its donations “are not aligned to specific issues, but are tied to a mutual support for a competitive, overall environment and marketplace that are conducive to providing affordable, quality health care coverage for all Floridians.”
A few other high-profile issues and the money behind them last quarter include:
The prospect of bringing resort casinos to South Florida provided plenty of incentive for both the state’s existing gambling venues and those that want to get in. Genting, the Florida gaming newcomer, dropped $202,920 -- $160,000 of which went to the state Republican Party of Florida, whose members are often an anti-gambling bulwark. Other gaming interests include Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel and Resort ($135,000); Gulfstream Racetrack in Hollywood ($63,385); Mardi Gras Gaming in Hollywood and its affiliate, the Racing Corp. of West Virginia ($69,500); the West Flagler Dog Track ($54,500); Isle of Capri ($49,500) and Palm Beach Kennel Club ($36,750).
After years watching Gov. Charlie Crist’s anti-rate increase stance hurt their profits, the state’s largest utility companies have donated heavily to help persuade Gov. Rick Scott not to oppose their requests for electric rate increases when the issue comes before state regulators next year. Tampa Electric Co. gave $261,650; Progress Energy, $145,620; Florida Power & Light, $155,025.
The state’s largest private prison operator, the Geo Group, is counting on lawmakers reviving a plan to transfer 19 South Florida prisons from public to private management after a court rejected it. It gave $114,000.
The online travel industry wants a bill to clarify that can keep the mark-up it collects from customers when it books rooms for hotels instead of remit some of it in taxes. Online travel company Expedia ponied up $18,000, and the Marriott hotel chain gave $11,150 more. Walt Disney World, which is also opposed to the resort gaming initiative, contributed $57,840.
For years, Florida optometrists have battled with the Florida Medical Association over the right to prescribe certain drugs. The Florida Optometric Committee of Continuous Existence gave $371,500 -- $100,000 of which went to Gov. Scott’s political committee -- and the FMA gave $165,250. Miramar-based Automated Health care Solutions contributed $203,500 as it faces a crackdown in how workers’ comp physicians dispense drugs in house.
Scott’s political committee wasn’t the only one to take in big bucks. Future House Speakers Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel and Richard Corcoran of Trinity hauled in $312,000 for the Committee for a Conservative House.
Orlando Sen. Andy Gardiner reaped $285,100 for Protect Our Liberty and Sen. Jack Latvala of St. Petersburg came in third by taking in $130,500 for his Florida Leadership Fund. Latvala also raised $154,000 -- the most of any legislator for his individual campaign All are Republicans.
Gardiner and Latvala are in competition to succeed future Sen. President Don Gaetz in two years. Their funds will help them get like-minded candidates elected and help fellow senators who will decide their next leader.
Latvala said that, in addition to the presidential election year, the redistricting effort is putting more pressure on more law makers to raise more money faster.
“We might be in session until May,” Latvala said. “There are technically all 40 seats up in the Senate -- double the number -- and so there’s more competition.”