Sixteen years of records show the ways lobbying in Tallahassee has changed…and how it hasn’t

by | Apr 23, 2023

On December 20, 2005, when Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed Florida’s lobbying gift ban (Senate Bill 6B) into law, he called it a “big deal.” At the time, national headlines about corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff were giving the profession a black eye, prompting lawmakers in state capitals across the country – including Tallahassee – to perform some navel gazing and pass lobbying reforms in an effort to curb the public outcry.

In addition to banning lobbyists from plying lawmakers with food, drinks, golf outings, vacations or other lavish gifts, one of the more controversial provisions of Florida’s 2005 gift ban law was the requirement for lobbyists to file quarterly compensation reports, listing fees paid to them by corporations, associations or other principals. Although lobbyists were only required to report in rough “ranges” rather than exact amounts, media outlets have made it a ritual each quarter to print splashy headlines proclaiming the unseemly fees lobbyists haul in each quarter.

Turns out, when looking at the industry as a whole, it’s not all that much, particularly when compared to the state budget. And over the last 16 years, spending on lobbying as a percentage of the state budget hasn’t changed much, at all.

The 2007 stage budget weighed in at $71.5 billion. That same year, reported fees for legislative and executive branch lobbying came in at a median estimated range of about $181.6 million. Put another way, lobbying fees equated to about one-quarter of one percent (0.25%) of the state budget in 2007. Compare that to last year, when Governor Ron DeSantis signed a state budget of $109.9 billion, and the median reported fees for legislative and executive branch lobbying came in at $275.7 million. That equates to…drum roll please…about one-quarter of one percent (0.25%) of the state budget in 2022.

What has changed, however, is the number of lobbyists registered in Tallahassee – and who they lobby for. But that number, too, might surprise some. There are 1,789 registered legislative branch lobbyists in 2022, or 239 fewer today than there were in 2007, so while the size of the compensation “pie” has increased roughly at the same rate as the state budget, there are fewer lobbyists chasing the compensation “pie,” which means there’s a bigger slice for everyone.

In terms of lobbying dollars compared with bills passed, the numbers get a bit more eye-popping. Lawmakers passed, and Governor DeSantis signed into law, 241 bills in 2022. That equates to an average of $1.14 million dollars worth of lobbying, per bill, to shape the final outcome of the legislative session. For those critics who rightly point out that many of those lobbying dollars are actually spent killing bills, we can look at the total number of bills proposed – 1,002 – which works out to an average of $275,200 per bill, whether it survived or not.

While the records are disjointed and difficult to compare because they require lobbyists to register separately for both the legislative and executive branches, and only require reporting in large ranges, the records over the last 16 years reveal the average legislative lobbyist in 2007 earned about $55,000 in fees. In 2022, the average legislative lobbyist earned just under $92,000 in fees. That’s an increase of roughly 4.5% per year, a bit better than the consumer price index (CPI), which, despite recent inflation, has only gone up about 2.37% over that span.

Meanwhile, fees reported for both executive and legislative branch lobbying between 2007 and 2022 show an overall increase of $94.1 million over those years, which equates to an increase of about 3 percent per year, in line with the CPI.

Consolidation and growth of larger firms has been a notable trend, with smaller firms merging into larger ones. The Southern Group, Tallahassee’s largest lobbying firm, which had 9 registered lobbyists in 2007, now boasts 29 today. Their client list has grown, too, from just under 100 in 2007 to more than 320 clients at the end of 2022. And they aren’t alone. Other notable firms that have amassed armies of lobbyists include Ballard Partners, Capital City Consulting, and dozens of other smaller firms.

“It appears a lot of smaller firms have begun to merge into the very large firms,” says Jennifer Green, who runs a four-person lobbying firm, Liberty Partners. “But I believe just as many one and two-person firms are popping up. It really depends on the type of lobbying work the client needs as to the type of firm they hire.”

Green is also a board member of the Florida Association for Professional Lobbyists (FAPL), and helped craft the compensation reporting rules back in 2005. She doesn’t think the reporting requirements have had much impact, expressing skepticism about the accuracy of the reported compensation data. She also noted that the original intent of the compensation reporting law, which was to show the public what companies were paying lobbyists for influence, has not been achieved.

“I think the firm compensation reporting requirements have become a marketing tool for some lobbying firms. The reality is, since the initial range is $1-$9,999, one firm could receive $3 for a quarter ($1 a month) and another $9,999 for a quarter ($3,333 a month) and report exactly the same information because the report requires a “range” of $1-$9,999,” Green said. “If you agree the original intent of the compensation reporting law was to show the public what companies (principals) were paying lobbyists for influence, the result was not that.”

She’s not alone in that sentiment. Ken Pruitt, who served as President of the Florida Senate during the first year the reporting requirements took effect, and now serves as a lobbyist himself, also noted that the reports have aided some firms with marketing, and thinks the reporting law has mostly served up fodder for the media, while burdening everyone with more paperwork.

“Except for the increase in administrative costs, I’m not aware of any significant impact the compensation reporting has had on the lobbying profession,” Pruitt says.  “To my knowledge, there were few Ethics Commission complaints filed against lobbyists prior to its passage and few complaints are filed presently.”  

Both Pruitt and Green, in separate interviews, point to term limits as having a much bigger impact on lobbying in Florida. First adopted in 1992, the first lawmakers were forced out by term limits back in 2000. Since then, lobbyists have had to learn new skills.

“Term limits have necessitated the lobbying profession enhance their approach with legislators to be more educators as opposed to influencers,” said Pruitt. “Like most professions over the last fifteen years, lobbying firms through consolidation and specialization, have structured their firms to meet the needs and demands of their clients.”
Green echoed the sentiment. “While term limits seem to have significantly changed the process, it did benefit new firms that have developed over the last 15 years,” she says. “Gone are the days of one or two key legislators who one or two key lobbying firms went to for assistance. Now all lobbyists are essentially on a level playing field as it relates to building relationships with members because of eight-year term limits.

“The downside, notes Green, “is that term limits mean campaign contributions play a much larger role in the process.”

And it shows in the data. Looking back at the chart, every election year except 2008 and 2022, the amount of overall lobbying compensation, and particularly legislative branch lobbying fees, have gone down considerably during election years. It turns out, a lot of the dollars that might be collected by lobbyists end up in the political war chests of elected officials. And some of those officials end up taking the cash with them when they leave office and open up a lobbying shop of their own, where they’re able to repurpose the dollars and spread them around to other lawmakers’ political accounts, buying them instant influence with their former colleagues.

A recent six-year constitutional ban took effect this year to help curb that practice, but Green expressed frustration that it hasn’t seemed to have much impact. The law bans elected officials in the state from working as lobbyists while holding public office, and bars state and local elected officials from lobbying their state agencies or offices for six years after leaving office.

“I see more and more former members deciding to start ‘lobbying’ at the end of their eight years (or prior) in office and leaving the process with large war chests of money in their political committees that they have raised from lobbyists who will be fellow competitors,” said Green. “Seems like if a legislator is term-limited or has not indicated that are running for another office they should not be able to raise funds into their [political committee] their last years in office.”

Coming soon: A look at how mergers and consolidations changed the Tallahassee lobbying industry over the last 15 years…for better or worse.

1 Comment

  1. Ron Kirkland

    Follow the special interest money and you will find bought elected officials that do not represent we the people!

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