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THE ISSUE: Gift ban loophole

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By The Staff

You’ve got to love the inventive gall of Tallahassee’s privileged political class. Following a series of embarrassing scandals involving lobbyist gifts to state legislators, the Florida Legislature passed a sweeping gift ban in 2005 prohibiting state legislators, as well as the governor and other state officials, from accepting anything of value from lobbyists. Gone were the all-expense-paid trips, martini luncheons, dinner parties, personal gifts and other freebies.

So the public was led to believe.

Nonetheless, despite the gift ban prohibiting lobbyists from directly giving a state legislator or official anything of value, the self-aggrandizement of Tallahassee’s privileged political class has continued unabated, thanks to an inventive legal loophole.

The loophole circumvents the gift ban by allowing state legislators and officials to receive free drinks, meals, travel, hotel rooms and event tickets from lobbyists and special interest groups provided they are funneled through Florida’s state Democratic and Republican parties or political organizations known as committees of continuous existence (CCE).

Although lobbyist donations to Florida’s state political parties are ostensibly for the “direct benefit” and “furthering the objectives” of the parties, they have become a de facto conduit for providing state lawmakers with a host of freebies. Records acquired by the Lakeland Ledger show that both state political parties have used lobbyist donations to pay for the personal travel and entertainment expenses of state lawmakers.

The inventive loophole has also seen some top state lawmakers establish their own CCEs. Bearing such innocuous names as the Citizens for Housing and Urban Growth and the Florida Hispanic Legislative Caucus, the CCEs enable state lawmakers to accept unlimited donations from lobbyists, corporations and special interest groups. Further, legislators are free to use the donations as they see fit since there are no restrictions on their use.

While some may wink at the lobbyists’ care and feeding of legislators as a reality of politics, unlimited donations and their unrestricted use have the inherent potential for breeding corruption and creating an unfair advantage for those who have the money to leverage influence on the Legislature at the expense of the common good.

Thus, the bitter irony of the gift ban passed in 2005 is that the self-aggrandizement of Tallahassee’s privileged political class has spawned yet another legal loophole. As a consequence, the legislative influence of lobbyists and special interests has gone from bad to worse.