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As session opens, special interest cash helps to buy into the agenda

030214 MH front pageWhen Florida legislators open their annual 60-day session Tuesday, many of the decisions about what issues make it onto the agenda have already been made — thanks in large part to the powerful special interest groups and a torrent of cash flowing into the coffers of legislative political committees.

It’s all about buying in on the legislative agenda.

The Florida Senate, for example, has offered up a bill to create two new resort casinos, one each in Miami-Dade and Broward. The proposal comes after a year of study and $400,000 in fees to consultants. The biggest beneficiaries: three casino giants — Genting Resorts World, Las Vegas Sands and the Seminole Tribe — the largest gaming contributors to political campaigns this cycle.

Another example: a bill to preserve a dental care contract for Miami-based MCNA. It failed last year. This year’s bill, which would remove $200 million in dental care from the state’s Medicaid reform, has rocketed through House and Senate committees even before the start of session. The juice? Proponents say it’s the hard-work and persuasion skills of the bill sponsors, Miami Republicans Sen. Anitere Flores and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz. It doesn’t hurt that MCNA gave more than $355,000 to the political committees of Republican legislators and the Republican Party in the last seven months.

And then there’s billionaire Coral Gables executive Miguel “Mike” Fernandez, who is pushing a bill to allow Miami-Dade College and Florida International University to reap the revenue from a proposed a half-penny sales tax. After years of legislative resistance, the bill is all set for a vote on the House floor. Who’s Fernandez? He’s co-finance chair of Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign and has given legislators more than $250,000 this cycle, and is the governor’s biggest backer — donating $2.4 million in the last four years.

To be sure, money has long commanded attention in the Legislature. Businesses hire teams of lobbyists to mount a full court press on major issues and seed the debate with campaign cash. Lawmakers depend heavily on the special interest money to underwrite their campaigns. But over the past year, the amount of money flowing into political committees is unprecedented and has ignited an arms race for cash.

“The thirst for campaign money has just reached a new level,’’ said veteran lobbyist Ron Book, in between two legislative fundraisers in Miami last week. “I say this every year and every year it gets worse.” Story here. 

Capitol cash

Florida’s new campaign finance law authorized legislators to create political committees that can collect checks of unlimited amounts. They do not have to report what legislation the money is intended to influence but they must report campaign contributions monthly. Below, a list of legislators with the most collected in their political committees in the 2014 election cycle*.

Legislators Political committee Largest checks
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart $1,114,650 $50,000 Miguel Fernandez, $50,000 MCNA (a Medicaid dental care provider), $50,000 Paul Tudor Jones (environmental advocate), $50,000 FPL, $50,000 Matt Gaetz PAC, $50,000 Anitere Flores PAC
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton 745,974 $25,000 Automated Healthcare, $25,000 Bealls, $25,000 Fla. Med. Assn., $25,000 FPL
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater 674,990 $30,000 Genting, $25,000 AFSCME (union)
Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island 652,000 $275,000 Florida Blue, $75,000 Republican St. Leadership Comm., $50,000 Impact (insurance PAC)
Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland 316,000 $25,000 Genting, $25,000 ALICO
Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring 301,578 $50,000 Fla. Med. Assn., $15,000 AFSCME
Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami 247,803 $50,000 Genting, $50,000 Florida Optometric Association Political Committee
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami 253,623 $50,000 Disney, $15,000 AT&T
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity 227,283 $50,000 Disney, $30,000 Genting
Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami 211,971 $15,000 AT&T, $15,000 Florida Justice PAC (trial lawyers)

SOURCE: Florida Department of Elections.

*The 2014 election cycle began in November 2012. The contributions are through February 26, 2014.