New law forces Florida officials to choose: keep government jobs or become lobbyists

An upheaval affecting Florida’s intersecting worlds of government, politics and lobbying has forced officials to choose: They can keep their jobs in elected or appointed positions. Or they could keep their careers or future career plans—as paid lobbyists.

Several elected officials tried unsuccessfully this week to get a federal judge to block the new rule, which is set to go into effect Dec. 31. Some have resigned from the government and lawyers involved in challenging the law say more could depart in the hours before the sharply tightened restrictions take effect.

An unknown number of elected and appointed officials across the state could be affected, including several prominent figures in South Florida.

  • Steve Geller, a Broward County commissioner and former Democratic leader in the Florida State Senate, has a legal practice that involves some lobbying in the state legislature.
  • Lubby Navarro, an elected Miami-Dade County School Board member who’s one of the lobbyists for the South Broward Hospital District, better known as the Memorial Healthcare System, the Hollywood-based operator of a network of hospitals and health services in the southern third of county.
  • Mack Bernard, a Palm Beach County commissioner, former state representative and former Delray Beach city commissioner, said in a court filing that once he leaves office, he plans to “before Palm Beach County promote”.

Bernard had been planning to abide by a previous ban on lobbying the county within two years of leaving office. He and other elected officials who have sued to try to block the new rule from being unconstitutional have argued that the new six-year ban on lobbying his former agency is excessive.

In 2018, Florida added strict new lobbying restrictions to its state constitution. Voters overwhelmingly supported the amendment, receiving 78.9 percent of the vote.

The enhanced rules prohibit public officials from lobbying on virtually any topic — policy, government spending or procurement decisions — at virtually any level of government — federal, state or local — while in office and for six years after leaving office.

Earlier this year, the legislature passed laws imposing the restrictions, which included $10,000 fines for violations.

The new rule replaces more limited restrictions that bar lawmakers from lobbying state agencies while in office and bar lawmakers, statewide elected officials and many local government officials from lobbying their former agencies for two years after leaving office.

State House rules restrict former lawmakers from lobbying the House during their six-year term and prevent lawmakers from lobbying local governments while in office, according to lawmakers’ analysis of the changes.

Bernard and four other elected officials filed a federal lawsuit Dec. 21 seeking to block the law and seek a ruling that it is unconstitutional.

“These broad new restrictions on lobbying profoundly and impermissibly limit the core First Amendment rights of current and former public officials. Lobbying—the practice of communicating directly with government policymakers to inform and influence government policy and practices— — has long been recognized as an act entitled to strong protections under the First Amendment,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit acknowledges that the lobbyists are not popular professionals, but says their activities “reach deep into the heart of the democratic process.”

Plaintiffs include René Garcia, a Miami-Dade County commissioner, former state legislator and former Hialeah City Council member; Javier Fernández, South Miami mayor and former state representative; Crystal Wagar, the Miami Coast congresswoman, they both do lobbying work.

Another plaintiff, Lyon County Commissioner William Proctor, had planned to lobby after leaving office after the previous two-year moratorium expired, the lawsuit said. The plaintiffs are Democrats and Republicans.

One of their arguments is that the six-year lobbying moratorium on former elected officials is too broad. It acknowledges that “a more limited ban may stand up to scrutiny. A short-term ban on lobbying immediately after leaving office, which prevents ex-officials from taking advantage of the contracts, associations and expertise they acquired while in the civil service, could arguably narrowly serve the order.” Convincingly serve the national interest.”

Lobbyists begin to fill the fourth-floor gallery between the House and Senate as lawmakers begin to consider the state budget at the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, March 10, 2020. The new rule limits the ability of Florida officials, even those in part-time elected offices, to lobby other elected officials while they are in office and for six years after their terms end.

Several states and the U.S. Senate have two-year lobbying bans and the U.S. House of Representatives have a one-year lobbying ban, but the national list for the National Conference of State Legislatures does not show any states with more than two years, the lawsuit said.

Many government jobs are part-time and have a part-time salary. “Constitutional provisions that undermine careers and livelihoods through unnecessary and overbroad restrictions are clearly contrary to the public interest,” the lawsuit says.

“It had very wide-ranging ramifications,” said Scott Hiaasen, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

For example, the lawsuit states, “The new restrictions would prohibit city commissioners of Palm Beach County municipalities from advocating in Orange County or elsewhere. A public official who works as a legal affairs representative for a union or public hospital district would be barred from lobbying the Legislature even on issues outside the scope of their elected offices.”

Geller said he doesn’t think it’s a conflict for someone like Miami-Dade school board member Navarro to work in the South Broward hospital district to try to get more money from the federal government.

“It’s a broad overreach. If they say you can’t lobby your county’s elected officials, I still don’t know how that matters, but at least I can understand it,” Geller said.

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom on Thursday denied a request by lawyers for the plaintiffs to block the law from going into effect on Dec. 31. She said the case could proceed and set a January deadline for both sides to submit additional arguments.

Meanwhile, some officials are at a loss.

For example, Geller said a small part of his private law practice involves lobbying state legislatures for clients. He said he would not do any lobbying work until the issue was resolved, which he expected would lead to the regulation being overturned.

“When it’s resolved, I’ll figure out what I’m doing. I’m going to stay on as county governor, and I’m going to obey the law,” Geller said.

People whose primary job is lobbying face a more difficult decision. “I expect some of these elected officials may resign.”

Many government offices were closed Friday, including the state attorney general’s office, which was tasked with defending the new rules ahead of Bloom, and Navarro’s office on the Miami-Dade County School Board. Her representatives did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. Bernard did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on Friday.

The total number of people affected is unknown.

Geller and Hiaasen say some elected officials may not know the scope of the law and therefore not realize they are being affected.

“The law will go into effect on January 1, so public officials across the state will have to make decisions,” Hiaasen said. “Some will decide to give up their public office and some may decide to give up their private business depending on their circumstances.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see more resignations in the next 24 hours, especially at the local and municipal level,” he said at noon on Friday.

Several appointed heads of state agencies have left in recent weeks, apparently to avoid new, tougher restrictions.

Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Cities League of Palm Beach Counties, and Mary Lou Tighe, executive director of the Broward League of Cities, said Friday that they are not Any city, town or village elected officials in either county are known to be affected.

Radcliffe said he initially thought it was a big enough problem that the league needed to develop an education program for elected officials who might be interested. But, he said, none of the county’s 204 municipal elected officials signed up, suggesting not many were affected.

Constitutional amendments were proposed by former Senate President Don Gates (R-Niceville) while serving on the Constitutional Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years to recommend changes.

He said in 2020 that he pushed the bill because of what he saw while in the Senate from 2006 to 2016.

“In my view, we have a sub-rosa culture where people go into public office, whether it’s elected or appointed, and create a soft landing for themselves in the lobbying community,” Gates said. “I see situations where people I’ve worked in the legislature spend their final year in the legislature basically as an audition for which lobbying firm they can get hired by.”

Gates said he chose Dec. 31, 2022, as the effective date to “dispel any suggestion that the 12th Amendment was designed to harm specific groups of people or prevent people at the end of their legislative careers from doing what they were intended to do. . …..I want a clean proposal that cannot be attacked.

This report uses information from the Orlando Sentinel archives.

Anthony Man can be reached at aman@sunsentinel.com or on Twitter @broad politics