State universities, colleges and related organizations are spending at least $2 million a year on lobbyists, according to new disclosure records required by the Florida House.
The lobbying-fee totals will rise as firms continue to file copies of their contracts with public agencies, including colleges, cities, counties, school boards, hospitals and special districts, under a new rule initiated by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes.
As of Wednesday, lobbying firms had reported $775,000 in annual contracts with nine state universities, ranging from a low of $45,000 a year to $150,000. Contracts had not been disclosed for three schools, the University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida and Florida Atlantic University, although they employ private lobbyists.
Student associations at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida reported two contracts totaling $105,000, with disclosures pending for similar student groups at Florida State University and the University of Central Florida.
Two institutes affiliated with the state university system reported $240,000 in lobbying contracts, including $180,000 for the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, which has branches in Pensacola and Ocala.
An association affiliated with the University of South Florida medical school reported a $110,000 contract.
Seven of the 28 state colleges had reported lobbying contracts totaling $627,000, with disclosures pending for at least six other colleges that have registered lobbyists. The Association of Florida Colleges, which represents the 28 schools as a group, also has a $112,500 a year contract with a lobbying firm.
The lobbying-contract disclosures are part of Corcoran's broader effort to curb the influence of lobbyists on the legislative process and to make Florida "a national leader in transparency and accountability."
He has criticized the practice of public agencies, like cities, paying lobbyists to push or oppose legislation and budget projects in Tallahassee. He has said elected officials should do their own lobbying and should not use tax dollars to pay for lobbyists.
Universities and colleges are a little different. The institutions are led by academics, although each school has an appointed board of trustees. Additionally, the schools are already prohibited by state law from using public funds to pay for lobbyists. The contracts are funded with private money raised by the schools' foundations.
At the university level, the schools use a combination of paid lobbyists and university leaders to make their cases in the Legislature.
Janet Owen, a vice president for governmental affairs and an associate general counsel at the University of North Florida, said her school, which employs The Fiorentino Group for $72,000 a year, was "actually late" to the practice of hiring outside lobbyists.
"We saw that those institutions utilizing lobbying firms had better results in the legislative process," Owen said. "While regional elected officials support the institutions in their districts and region, as well as their alma maters, education- appropriations and education-policy committees are made up of elected officials from all over the state."
"Outside lobbying firms have statewide relationships, which can be invaluable to a regional university that may not be well known in other parts of the state," she said.
New College of Florida, the smallest institution in the university system, is paying $84,000 to Capital City Consulting for lobbying this year. Among other issues, the school is looking for initial support for an ambitious growth plan that would expand the college from about 850 students to 1,200 by 2022.
David Gulliver, a spokesman for the school, said that although college President Donal O'Shea and a vice president are registered to lobby, administrators find it "more cost effective to contract with an outside firm."
Florida Polytechnic University, the state's newest university, uses a combination of staff members and an outside firm, Ballard Partners, at $72,000 a year.
Crystal Lauderdale, a spokeswoman for the school, said using an outside lobbying firm is "essential in the ultra-competitive environment for gaining funding from Florida's Legislature, given the difficult choices legislators face when trying to allocate limited state dollars."
At the state college level, Ed Meadows, president of Pensacola State College, which pays the Ballard firm $90,000 a year, said college leaders are educators first, concentrating on running their institutions.
"A lobbyist's job is not just to lobby, but also to advise and consult with people whose main job is education," Meadows said. "We are not lobbyists. We do not know the ins and outs or even understand, at times, the legislative process."
Meadows likened hiring a lobbyist to using a lawyer to navigate the legal system.
"They advise us on the legislative process and who we should be speaking with about our legislative priorities," he said.
The Ballard firm is the leader in the lobbying contracts, representing five state colleges, the state college association and three universities.
Former lawmakers are also active in the lobbying arena, with former Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, representing Florida Atlantic University, former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, representing the University of Central Florida, and former Senate budget chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, representing two state colleges in Central Florida. Their lobbying contracts have yet to be disclosed.
Michael Corcoran, brother of the House speaker, is representing the University of South Florida, but the contract has not yet been disclosed. He is being paid $50,000 to represent the university's student association.