Gift Ban Repeal Could Help Tallahassee Economy

By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida
By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida


A measure removing, for the most part, the ban on lobbyists giving gifts to lawmakers passed a Senate panel Monday, with supporters arguing it would boost the Tallahassee economy and citizen input while opponents claimed the measure would reopen the door to special interests buying favors from legislators.

On a 7-4 vote, the Senate Ethics and Elections Subcommittee approved the proposal (SB 1322), which still has two more stops before hitting the Senate floor. Four Republicans and three Democrats supported the measure, while three Republicans and one Democrat voted against it.

Under the measure, by Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, lawmakers could accept any gift worth up to $25 without any reporting. Any gift worth more than $25 and up to $100 could be accepted, but a lawmaker would have to report it.

The House speaker or Senate president would have to pre-approve in writing any gift of more than $100. The measure has no House counterpart, but Jones said lawmakers in that chamber told him it could be merged into a larger elections bill if the idea gets traction in the Senate.

Repealing the ban, which passed the Legislature in 2005, would help increase interaction with citizens, Jones said, because the hassle of dealing with reimbursements makes it more difficult than it should be and can discourage lawmakers from taking part in events.

“What I see has happened over the last five years is a disservice to this state,” Jones said.

Supporters also argued that the bill could help the Tallahassee tourism and restaurant sectors.

“They’re struggling to survive since this ban was enacted,” Mayor John Marks said.

Marks pointed out that the capital city is already in the crosshairs of a budget that slashes state jobs and would require the remaining employees to devote a portion of their paycheck to their pensions.

“We’re going to hurt,” he said. “We need some relief.”

Opponents slammed the idea of opening the door to new ways for special interests to get favors from lawmakers.

Ben Wilcox of the League of Women Voters agreed with some lawmakers’ contention that it seemed odd to worry about small gifts like a cup of coffee while legislators are allowed to form 527s and leadership funds that can accept tens of thousands of dollars.

“But I think what’s wrong has nothing to do with the cup of coffee,” he said.

But Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said many lawmakers can afford costs like a cup of coffee while speaking with a lobbyist.

“We have to clean up our image,” she said. “I’m not sure this is the way we need to go.”

Even lawmakers who said they think the ban needs to be addressed said they worried about the public perception of lawmakers freeing special interests to wine and dine them, especially as the economy struggles to recover from the Great Recession.

“The timing -- I think we’d get, quite frankly, roasted in the press,” said Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Cross Creek, who voted against the bill but also said he believes the rules need to be changed.

But supporters bristled at the idea that small gifts could buy lawmakers’ votes.

“I’ve never considered a cup of coffee to be a gift,” said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples. “It doesn’t look like a gift. It doesn’t feel like a gift. It’s not a gift.”

The bill still has to pass the Senate Rules and Budget committees before heading to the floor.

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