State Politics

Bash funded by special interest groups

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov.-elect Rick Scott says he bought independence from special interests when he spent a record $73 million of his own money to get elected, but the $3 million inaugural bash he is throwing this week is being paid for by the same Tallahassee interest groups that have the most at stake in his administration.

Companies that want to influence the debate on Medicaid reform -- from drug companies to HMO chains -- were the largest donors, giving more than $800,000, according to initial estimates.

Real estate developers and investors, eager for fewer regulations and no growth management hurdles, contributed more than $275,000. Gambling interests -- from the Seminole Tribe of Florida to the Las Vegas Sands, which are at opposite ends of a debate over expanding casino gambling in Florida -- ponied up a total of $150,000.

Sixty-eight companies and seven individuals wrote checks for $25,000, the maximum allowed.

At least two contributors -- Gary Morse, chairman of The Villages retirement community in Central Florida, and Wayne Huizenga, the Broward Waste Management mogul -- put in personal contributions along with $25,000 checks from their companies.

And Florida Crystals, the sugar giant and agri-business concern that wants to have a piece of the state’s alternative energy pie, had four of its affiliates donate a total of $100,000 to the inaugural cause.

What do they get in return?

“They should expect a series of events intended to honor the people of this state in this period of a change in leadership in our state -- and nothing more than that,” said Erin Isaac, spokeswoman for Scott’s inauguration.

But on Monday, many of the donors were included in four invitation-only inaugural events, from a morning breakfast tribute to women in leadership, to an evening candlelight dinner honoring about 120 “Friends of the Inauguration.”

For many of the state’s largest industries, accustomed to buying access through campaign contributions, the request for donations from the state’s 45th governor also allowed them to save face with Scott -- after contributing heavily to his Republican primary competitor, Bill McCollum.

For example, Rob Gidel of Liberty Partners, an Orlando-based investment company and a member of McCollum’s finance team, was an early donor to the inaugural with his company’s $25,000 check.

Florida’s utility giants also contributed heavily to the inaugural events.

They want Scott to back their pro-nuclear power initiatives or, in the case of Florida Power & Light, their push for solar development.

Scott said on the campaign trail that he doesn’t believe in the concept of climate change and expressed skepticism about the value of investing in solar and alternative energy. The utilities want him to reconsider his position in the name of job development.

Brian Ballard, the finance chairman of the inaugural event, downplays the impact of the donations in influencing Scott.

“There’s no one I know who really believes contributing to an inauguration is a wise investment to buy you access,” he said.

Ballard, a lobbyist and veteran fundraiser, said there’s more bang for the buck when it comes to campaigns.

-- Herald/Times staff writers Michael C. Bender and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.