Lee vs. the lobbyists
Published: Thursday, January 20, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 20, 2005 at 12:55 a.m.
You'd never know it by reading the state constitution, but the Florida Legislature has three branches, not two.
The constitution creates the 40-member Senate and the 120-member House of Representatives, but it says nothing about the third branch - the hundreds of full-time, professional lobbyists who set much of the legislative agenda and have a major role in deciding what bills are passed or defeated.
These lobbyists derive their power from the organizations and special interests they represent. Senators and representatives are term-limited, but the most influential lobbyists stick around for decades.
Many of these lobbyists were once legislators themselves. For many young, ambitious lawmakers, actual service in the Legislature is equivalent to an apprenticeship. For all these reasons and more, lobbyists and legislators find it mutually beneficial to maintain good relationships with each other.
So, what's going on in Tallahassee these days is a real jaw-dropper. The new Senate president, Tom Lee, is taking on the lobbyists both in public and in private. He had a shouting match with one veteran lobbyist on the telephone recently, and he's ordered the preparation of legislation prohibiting lobbyists from serving in appointive positions on the state's Board of Governors and university trustee boards.
More to the point, he has said that he doesn't really care if he has a single friend in the lobbying corps when he leaves office after the 2006 election.
It's not unusual for a legislative leader to cross swords with certain lobbyists. After all, the lobbyists represent conflicting interests, and no legislator - especially one who owes some allegiance to the people back home - can please them all. Lee is unique in modern times in his willingness to take on all the lobbyists, if need be.
He'll have to be careful. The president of the Senate has immense powers, but he's not a dictator. Other members of the Senate could undercut him, especially if they form a coalition backed by key lobbyists. During one power struggle a quarter of a century ago, a president was allowed to preside over the Senate, but the real power was wielded by a powerful friend-turned-enemy.
Still, all Floridians outside the Tallahassee power structure should be rooting for him. A Legislature more interested in serving special interests than the voters back home is a Legislature that isn't worth sending to the state Capitol.
Lee's proposal to keep lobbyists off state higher education boards has merit. Why should a person who makes a living influencing the Legislature be allowed to exercise power over any state board, commission or agency?
As Lee has pointed out, Florida has no shortage of competent people who can fill these positions without trying to influence the policies and actions of state government for their own ends. Why not give them a chance to do so?
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