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Lobbyists learn the ropes on new rules

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes the house appropriations chair answers question from the press at the end of the special session, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes the house appropriations chair answers question from the press at the end of the special session, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) (Associated Press)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Advocates for local governments, big business and all other manner of interests touched by Tallahassee crammed into a room Tuesday for the first of two training meetings to prepare for the 2017 legislative session.

The subject was new House rules governing how lobbyists conduct business when pushing for bills and budget items. And at times, it was clearly a meeting of the lawyers, by the lawyers and for the lawyers.

"Simple guide: Until you become interested in the promotion or modification of or opposition to legislation or possible legislation proposed by anyone or pending in the House or Senate, you're not lobbying an issue," said Don Rubottom, staff director for the Public Integrity and Ethics Committee, in trying to parse what constitutes lobbying.

The new rules, the brainchild of new House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, are aimed at forcing lobbyists and in some cases lawmakers to be a bit more open about what's going on behind the scenes.

Budget projects targeted at individual governments or businesses --- and often pushed by lobbyists --- will have to be filed as individual bills before the House will consider folding them into the state spending plan. And it's no longer enough for lobbyists to just register as such, and list for whom they work; they now have to disclose which issues they are lobbying on.

In addition, lobbyists working for government entities are required to provide their contracts to the House.

That could lead to a deluge of new paperwork for those who work the process in Tallahassee.

"The answer is sure, there's a lot of additional work," said Ron Book, a lobbyist with an extensive practice that includes many local government contracts. "And we're all trying to learn the process."

Rubottom and JoAnne Leznoff, who oversees the House budget staff, spent close to two hours answering scenarios they came up with and questions that lobbyists pitched at them. Another training session is scheduled Wednesday.

Rubottom stressed that, for now, the House is trying to encourage lobbyists to play by the rules.

"We're not playing gotcha here," he said. "We're trying to get these issues in the public, so everybody knows who's working on what in the House."

At the same time, there was clearly a warning to those who might be tempted to try to come up with clever workarounds. For example: "Overdisclosure" --- listing a blizzard of issues meant to make it difficult to figure out what the lobbyist is working on --- is frowned upon.

"It's a fictitious response," Rubottom said. "It hides the bill you're actually lobbying. It calls attention to the one doing so. It fills our data set with garbage. It's a great way to get a call from us and get a little professional assistance."

In a meeting last week with House members, Rubottom also raised the possibility that lobbyists could turn on each other, filing complaints to try to harm opponents. Book seemed to downplay the possibility of that happening.

"I don't believe that I'm supposed to be here to be a lobbyist cop and report on other people," he said. "Maybe other people think that they are. ... I think that when people run around and don't do the right thing, eventually it'll catch up with them."

Leznoff, meanwhile, worked to describe what does and doesn't amount to a budget project for the purposes of the House rule requiring each of those proposals to be filed as a different bill. As with the lobbying rule, there was nuance but also some rules of thumb.

"Really focus on the notion of something that is specifically named, that is typically a private entity, local government or privately operated program --- that's where 95 percent of the projects are," she said.