TALLAHASSEE -- Sen. Tom Lee says he's heard all the complaints about the gift ban law passed seven years ago: Some say it's made it more expensive for lawmakers to do their jobs. Others say it led to the abuse of political committees to skirt the ban. They say it's awkward for lawmakers to even accept a cup of coffee.
"It's been held responsible for everything except 9/11," said Lee, whose push to end the influence of money in the legislative process led to the law that bans lawmakers and their staffs from accepting anything from lobbyists and the groups they represent.
Lee was Senate president when the law took effect and left the chamber later that year. Now back in the Senate, he wants to tweak the law to address issues some lawmakers say stifle routine interaction with constituents.
"We're trying to do the best we can in an imperfect process," Lee said.
Lee plans to submit an amendment to a Senate ethics bill (SB 2) to allow some exemptions to the gift ban, such as allowing lawmakers to attend functions by an organization and to accept food and beverages of nominal value. He also would require lawmakers to submit a public notice of plans to attend an event and report attendance afterward. It would cap how much a lawmaker can accept per group.
The gift ban passed by a wide margin in 2005, but there have been some regrets. Sen. Arthenia Joyner, who voted for the ban as a House member, believes it goes too far, often to the point of silliness.
"People really sometimes take umbrage and get offended and say, 'What? I can't give you a cup of coffee?'" said Joyner, D-Tampa, who supports adjusting the law.
She said she has been to school events where lunch is offered, but either declines it or writes a check because schools have lobbyists. "You'd be surprised at the people in the community that just don't understand that you can't do it and want to know why."
Former Sen. Steven Geller, a Democrat, was one of the few who voted against the gift ban. He calls it ridiculous.
"I believe that what the public objected to is if John Lobbyist takes Senator Jones to a fancy dinner at an expensive restaurant and visits with them for an hour-and-a-half while they're drinking $100 bottles of wine," Geller said.
"Do you believe that anyone would object to somebody getting a cup of coffee or a bottle of water? I don't think so."
He recalled receiving the Florida League of Cities' Senator of the Year award and he had to pay to attend the ceremony.
And he noticed that lawmakers aren't showing up to organizations' events or intergovernmental meetings in the same numbers they once did.
"Some people may say, 'Big deal, it's just $15 or $25.' If you're going to go to eight of them or 10 of them, they add up," Geller said.
"Most legislators decided it was easier not to attend these luncheons."
He said four changes should be made to the law: exempt non-alcoholic beverages; exempt other government bodies for the purposes of intergovernmental meetings and conferences; exempt dinners and functions hosted by groups as long as the media can attend and lawmaker gives notice of attendance; and exempt token gifts like pens and T-shirts.
And it's not as if money isn't still an influence inpolitics, said Susan Glickman, a lobbyist for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
"As long as you can walk down the street to one of the political parties and write a million-dollar check, the idea that a legislator can't grab a cup of coffee at an event just gets to the point of sort of silliness," said Glickman, adding lawmakers interact less with the public than before the ban.
And some lawmakers have used political committees as a way to avoid the gift ban. While they can't accept coffee from a lobbyist, they can take a $10,000 check from the same lobbyist through their political committees and then use the money to pay for the type of wining and dining the gift ban was trying to eliminate.
House and Senate bills are now trying to address that issue.
Lee originally sought a law that would force lawmakers to disclose allgifts, but in the back andforth with the House, it evolved into a complete ban.
While Lee acknowledges that there are some issues that can be addressed with the ban, he believes Tallahassee is a better place since then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law.
"The few criticisms I hear of it are primarily from people who were around in the heyday when this place was operated like Sodom and Gomorrah and they miss that," Lee said.
"To call some people's bluff, I was tempted to file an amendment ... exempting a bottle of water and a cup of coffee from the gift law, because that really seems to be the problem, isn't it?"
Before the gift ban, lawmakers couldn't accept gifts valued at more than $100, but some took advantage of a loophole by having a lavish meal and drinks and having more than one lobbyist split the tab so that the average was below the legal limit.