Florida has some of the nationâ€™s most expansive open records policies, but its Sunshine Law does not adequately regulate the sometimes shadowy role of lobbyists, according to a national report released Monday.
The State Integrity Investigation report, conducted by a coalition of groups including the Center for Public Integrity, gave Florida a â€œC-â€œ grade for transparency, ranking the state 15th nationwide.
Floridaâ€™s overall grade was dragged down by what critics say are loose laws regarding the stateâ€™s 2,000 registered lobbyists, who wield considerable sway in shaping policy and spending in Tallahassee.
â€œYou have a lot of these state legislators that work part-time, and a lot of time theyâ€™re relying very heavily on lobbyistsâ€ for information, said Caitlin Ginley, project manager for the State Integrity Investigation report. â€œThereâ€™s no one really checking to make sure that those relationships are kosher.â€
The report comes on the heels of Sunshine Week, when state officials lauded Floridaâ€™s open government laws and policies. On Friday, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater pointed to a recent report by the non-profit Sunshine Review, which gave Floridaâ€™s state website a â€œBâ€ on transparency. However, that report also pointed out the dearth of available information on the stateâ€™s $127-million lobbying industry.
The SII report likened Floridaâ€™s laws regulating lobbyists to â€œSwiss cheese,â€ because it has several exemptions, allowing people who usually influence lawmakers to operate outside of regulations.
And while state law requires lobbyists to disclose their allegiances and report their compensation each quarter, failing to do so rarely leads to significant penalties, the report found. The Legislature is charged with investigating, and several lawmakers have chummy relationships with lobbyists, who are regulars at political fundraisers and campaign events.
â€œItâ€™s set up so itâ€™s a wink and a nod,â€ Edwin Bender, executive director of National Institute on Money in State Politics, told investigators. Bender said he was unaware of any legislator-backed lobbyist audit ever being commissioned by Florida lawmakers.
Even when audits are done, monetary penalties for misconduct are capped at $5,000, a drop in the bucket for a multi-million industry that influences multibillion-dollar spending decisions.
â€œYou have to wonder whether that level of punishment is really effective,â€ said Ginley. â€œIs it just a slap on the wrist?â€
Jennifer Green, chairman of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, said the industry is self-regulating and, while the $5,000 penalty is small, itâ€™s rarely needed.
â€œI think that if there had been 10, 20, or 30 people brought up on ethics violations and sanctions, then maybe we should increase [the penalty],â€ she said. â€œBut I donâ€™t know that thereâ€™s been more than one [recent] case.â€
Lobbying laws were also part of the reason Florida scored a â€œDâ€ grade on the campaign finance section of the report. State law allows lobbyists and other individuals to contribute an unlimited amount of money to political parties, which can then dole the funds to individual candidates.
The report also gave the state low marks on transparency for its budgeting process, ethics enforcement and insurance. On â€œaccess to information,â€ Florida received a 67, or a â€œD+,â€ with investigators noting that accessing public records can be hampered by lengthy delays, prohibitive costs and dozens of exemptions.
Pat Gleason, the attorney generalâ€™s special counsel on open government, disagrees.
â€œOur state does a pretty good job,â€ she said. â€œFloridians have a right to sue an agency if they fail to comply with the [public records] law.â€
On redistricting, Florida received a 100 percent grade, with investigators praising the state for holding dozens of public meetings to discuss the once-a-decade process of redrawing political districts. While the process was open, the final product got low marks from Floridaâ€™s Supreme Court, where the state Senate redistricting map was rejected as unconstitutional. The House map was approved.
Florida was not alone in its below-average grade. Forty-three states received grades of â€œCâ€ or below, and Florida bested 35 of them. The highest ranked state was New Jersey, with a â€œB+â€ score. The worst was Georgia, lowest among eight states receiving an â€œF.â€