Corcoran looks to tighten lobbyist rules

By Lloyd Dunkelberger, The News Service of Florida
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida House of Representatives is poised to enact the most significant lobbying reforms in more than a decade when lawmakers return to Tallahassee for an organization session on Nov. 22.

The reforms, which have been crafted by incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, will be in the form of new House rules, which will govern the 120-member chamber's activities for the next two years, including the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions.

Among other provisions, the rules would:

  • Prohibit lobbyists from texting members while they are in committees or in floor sessions.
  • Require lobbyists to file electronic disclosures on what specific issues they are lobbying for or against.
  • Require separate bills to be filed on budget projects.
  • Ban House members from flying on planes provided by lobbyists or their clients.
  • Require House members to disclose any new jobs they take from public entities that receive tax dollars.
  • Prohibit House members, while in office, from lobbying local governments, with an exception for situations where their jobs require them to go before local officials and register as lobbyists.
  • Ban members from entering business deals with lobbyists or their clients.
  • Extend to the lobbying corps the House's sexual-harassment code for members and employees.
  • Require lobbyists who represent public entities or tax-supported entities to disclose their lobbying contracts.
  • Ban former House members from lobbying the chamber for six years after they leave office, up from the current ban of two years. The six-year ban would require passage of a constitutional amendment.

The rule changes, which must be approved by the House, are the most-extensive effort to regulate lobbying in the Legislature since 2005, when lawmakers approved legislation requiring lobbyists to disclose their fees and banned lobbyists or their clients from buying gifts or meals for lawmakers.

The move to redefine the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists has been anticipated with Corcoran's rise to the House speakership, foreshadowed by a spring 2015 floor speech when Corcoran called out the "the Gucci-loafing, shoe-wearing special interests, powers that be" in the health-care industry.

But in a later speech, where he accepted his designation as the next House speaker, Corcoran, a lawyer who has also been a chief of staff in the speaker's office, made it clear he was not targeting "special interests" in his bid to change the rules impacting lobbyists and members.

"The enemy has always been and will always be us," he told his members.

It was a message he repeated Thursday when he released the new House rules.

"It is time that government embodies the very highest of standards and serve citizens and not self," Corcoran, whose brother is a prominent lobbyist, said in a statement. "The Florida House, in adopting these rules, will take a transformational leap into a new era of accountability, professionalism, transparency and fairness.

"There is something (in) here impacting every player within the political process: members, lobbyists and the public."

Rep. Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who will be the new House Rules and Policy Committee chairman, said with the new rules, the House "is leading by example."

"If we are going to hold agencies and programs accountable, we must ensure that our own House is held to even higher standards," he said.

David Mica, a lobbyist for the Florida Petroleum Council and head of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, said Corcoran's effort is in line with his association's philosophy of establishing ethical standards for the industry.

Mica said he has been in discussions with Corcoran's aides, and they have expressed a willingness to possibly make adjustments as the rules are implemented in the coming months.

"In looking at them, while there are probably some provisions in there that are not going to make all of the profession happy, there are not draconian measures in there that I think are going to be burdensome to a point of no return," Mica said.

Mica said the rules have been put together with a "conscientious" effort to respect the constitutional right to petition, or lobby, the government.

"There has clearly been a sensitivity to some of the kinds of issues that have been raised there," Mica said. "What I believe they clearly want is a higher level of transparency and there will be some cultural changes that will have some folks doing things differently."

The rules do not apply to the Florida Senate, which has its own set of rules.

But Corcoran said: "The Florida House will set the standard for others to emulate."

News Service of Florida