After six years of being able to accept unlimited amounts of campaign cash but not a cup of coffee from lobbyists, two legislators are hoping to loosen the state law that bars lawmakers from receiving gifts from the public.
Sen. Dennis Jones, a Seminole Republican and dean of the upper chamber, and Rep. Jimmy Patronis, a Republican restaurateur from Panama City, have teamed up to weaken the law that was once hailed as one of the toughest legislative gift bans in the country. The reason, they argue, is that the complete ban on everything stifles trust and relationship-building in the Legislature and prevents lawmakers from mingling with voters.
“It’s probably been the most destructive thing to interacting with our constituents,’’ said Jones, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1978. “I’m not spending $18 bucks going to every reception. I’d rather take my wife out to dinner.”
Jones, who will retire because of term limits in 2012, said he is not filing the bill to help himself “but because it is the right thing to do.”
But he expects the negative perception to accompany any suggestion that lawmakers be allowed to take anything of value from lobbyists and is also realistic. “I don’t think it will pass,’’ Jones said. “But I wanted to do it as a statement.”
The gift ban was passed on the last day of a 2005 special session when legislators met to overhaul Medicaid laws and pass rules for slot machines. The idea was proposed by then-House Speaker Allan Bense to counter a proposal by then-Senate president Tom Lee requiring lobbyists to report their income from clients. In the end, both proposals passed and the lobbyist disclosure provision was challenged in court and upheld in 2009 by the Florida Supreme Court.
Since then, the gift ban has increasingly been seen as window dressing on the problem of lobbyist influence: Legislators may not take a trinket, drinks or dinner from special interests — but their political committees, known as 527s, may accept unlimited checks.
Many lawmakers routinely get around the gift ban by using their political committees to pay for meals, travel and catered dinners, sometimes with lobbyists.
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