Economic doldrums pay off big for Florida's lobbyists

TALLAHASSEE — In the midst of a $6 billion state budget deficit and widespread private-sector layoffs, one Florida industry looks recession-proof: lobbying state lawmakers.

The Capitol lobbying corps earned up to $45 million from January through March to influence the Legislature. That's essentially the same amount that all 2,000 state lobbyists made in the same period in 2008, when Florida wasn't in a financial emergency.

But lobbyists didn't earn all that money despite the dire financial times -- they say they earned it because of the terrible economy.

''Sure, it's ironic,'' said lobbyist Ron Book. "But the bottom line is people and businesses get nervous in a down economy. And they need the help. In a bad economy, you need a seat at the table. You can't walk away.''

Book is one of four lobbyists in the Capitol whose firms earned more than $1 million, according to financial disclosure reports filed last week for the first quarter of the year. Lobbyists are required to report their earnings in increments of $10,000.

At a minimum, lobbyists earned $19.7 million, and a maximum of $45 million. They reported a different amount for lobbying the executive branch, a range of $11 million to $32 million -- though some of that money is included in the legislative lobbying totals as well.

Either way, the amount lobbyists earned is still slightly more money compared to the first quarter of last year.

Since the two-month legislative session straddles two quarters, lobbyists earned even more money to influence legislators and Gov. Charlie Crist's administration during the entire session that ended May 8.

The lobbyist disclosure reports aren't the only measure of the cost of doing business in Tallahassee. Also in the first quarter of the year, 108 politicians in the state Capitol who are running for office raised a record $4 million in campaign contributions.

A large chunk of that campaign money came from many of the lobbyists and corporations who sought lawmakers' help this legislative session. The top contributors also hired the most paid advocates and hail from the telecommunications, health, energy, tobacco, gambling and insurance industries.

Former Senate President Tom Lee said he successfully pushed for the lobbyist disclosure system in 2005 to give citizens a glimpse into what really happens in the Capitol.

''A reason lobbying is relatively recession-proof,'' he said, "is that most of what the Legislature does is referee fist-fights between special-interests groups. And those never go away.''

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