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Will Short Gorham | 5/12/2011

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Florida's Biggest Lobbyists: Turning Up the Heat

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[Photo: Colin Hackley]
While Washington lobbyists reported record revenue in 2010, Florida's influence industry registered a dip in activity last year. Interest groups, governments and business interests spent $112.5 million to lobby the Florida Legislature in 2010 — a 3.6% decrease from 2009 that most in the industry attribute to corporate belt-tightening in a poor economy. Spending on executive branch lobbying, reported separately, ranged from $152 million to $227 million. The 10 most highly compensated lobbying firms in Florida took in between $32 million and $67 million in 2010. That amounted to 21% to 30% of total spending on lobbying in the state last year, according to a Florida Trend analysis. Because lobbyists file compensation reports with fees listed in ranges, the firms are ranked on the following pages based on their averages. Brian Ballard, managing partner of the state's top-earning firm, Smith & Ballard, says lobbying budgets are a good leading economic indicator because they're often the last thing to be cut when companies scale back and the first thing to be reinstated when companies are feeling more confident about the future.

» Florida's Biggest Lobbyists: #10 - #6
» Florida's Biggest Lobbyists: #5 - #1


New push for boutique hotels

The family-owned Palms Hotel & Spa in Miami Beach has renovated lobbies and bars, upgraded rooms and added a spa over the last couple of decades to draw customers who might otherwise be lured by major chains or larger hotels with more marketing muscle. "If you say Ritz-Carlton, people know immediately what to expect," said vice president Katja Janzon, whose family owns the 251-room Palms as well as Circa39, north of South Beach. "For us to create a name for ourselves is really what we're trying to achieve now." Janzon is not alone in her efforts. Small boutique hotels — a mainstay of Miami Beach — and larger independent hotels are seeking new ways to get noticed and, more importantly, booked. Some partner with niche online travel guides; others are seeking traffic through specialty rewards programs. Nearly all are joining existing marketing efforts spearheaded by the local tourism bureau. On Wednesday, the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau unveiled new versions of a website and glossy 127-page booklet dedicated to the region's boutique and "lifestyle" hotels, which include national names such as W South Beach and Kimpton's Epic Hotel, and independents including Park Central Hotel and the Sagamore. [Source: Miami Herald]


Lenders poised to pick up the pace of foreclosures

The flow of foreclosure filings moving through the court system in Southwest Florida and across the state continued to be constricted by the ongoing documentation crisis, but there were signs in April that banks are getting ready to pick up the pace. Bank of America, one of the largest lenders operating in the region, recorded 55 early-stage foreclosure filings in Manatee and Sarasota counties in April -- more than double the number filed in the months since the robo-signing issue surfaced in September. Real estate agents also say they are seeing an increase in the number of "broker price opinions," or BPOs, that they are performing to give banks an idea of what foreclosed properties are worth. "A lot of BPOs is a good indication that there are a lot of properties that are about to enter the system," said Drew Peterson, a foreclosed property specialist with Re/Max Alliance Group in Sarasota. [Source: Sarasota Herald-Tribune]


Florida Elections Commission owed almost $1.4 million in unpaid fines

Candidates, consultants and political organizations owe the Florida Elections Commission almost $1.4 million in unpaid fines from cases stretching as far back as 1990, state records show.

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The debts in 184 cases — many of which are already being written off by the state — has prompted members of the panel to consider whether and how to go after those who have defied an order to pay up for as long as 20 years. But the issue is complicated by how much authority the commission even has to use potentially effective tools to try to extract payments from the scofflaws. The vast majority of the unpaid fines are for $5,000 or less, but there are also a handful of large payments outstanding. Ted Brabham, a former chairman of the Palm Beach County Democratic party, owes more than a third of the total amount, more than $468,000 — the result of a scandal during the 1996 election. "Unfortunately, I don't have the money," Brabham said Wednesday. " ... I couldn't pay 10 percent of it." More familiar names also crop up on the list of those who haven't paid up. [Source: News Service of Florida]


Lifestyles: Florida's biggest Barbie fan

Perla Lichi, Partner at Pompano Beach's Lichi-Zelman Style Interiors, has been collecting Barbie dolls since she was in elementary school. She's collected approximately 600 of them and keeps them on display in a specially designed "Barbie Room" in her home. "Most of my collection consists of Barbie dolls made specifically for the adult collector," Lichi says. "They eventually go out of production and become more valuable. Some dolls were made specifically for certain stores, such as White Chocolate Obsession, which was released for Toys R Us Exclusives in 2005. This was part of the Flavor Obsession that also included Citrus Obsession and Peppermint Obsession."
» Read more about Perla Lichi's Florida Life.


ALSO AROUND FLORIDA:

› Digital Domain's West Palm footprint grows
Digital Domain has a deal to lease an 8,000-square-foot building at the gateway to the central city, in a bid to create a high-profile presence for the animation company's new venture downtown. Digital Domain Chairman John Textor this week confirmed he signed a lease to occupy the former CityPlace South Tower sales center, in the median of Okeechobee Boulevard. The temporary building most recently was used by the law firm of Novak Druce + Quigg before it moved into the CityPlace Tower office building. The building will serve as a display center for Digital Domain's affiliation with Florida State University and will consist of administrative offices, marketing and enrollment services. Textor said the deal with owner Related Cos. allows Digital Domain to use the building for at least two years. Digital Domain and the Tallahassee-based state university have a public-private partnership.

› Northeast Florida gets state's first regional foreign trade zone
The federal government has approved the Jacksonville Port Authority's bid to create an expanded foreign trade zone for Northeast Florida, JaxPort announced today. The U.S. Department of Commerce and its Foreign Trade Zone Board approved JaxPort's application for a zone that covers Duval, Nassau, Clay, Baker and Columbia counties. Business located in foreign trade zones can either eliminate or defer the custom duties levied when goods are imported into the U.S. The foreign trade zones are aimed at convincing manufacturers and distributors to put their operations in the U.S. rather than overseas. JaxPort officials have pushed to expand the zone so Northeast Florida can attract more businesses that will use the port for their shipments, said Deborah Lofberg, who oversees the foreign trade zone for JaxPort.
» Businesses expect boost from trade zone

› Boca-based Penthouse magazine publisher launches public stock offering
FriendFinder Networks Inc., a Boca Raton-based social networking and multimedia entertainment company, said late Tuesday it hopes to raise $50 million in an initial public offering of 5 million shares at $10 apiece. The company, which runs adult web sites and publishes Penthouse magazine, intends to use the proceeds to repay a portion of its debt. The shares were expected to begin trading on the Nasdaq Global Market on Wednesday under the symbol FFN. The offering is slated to close Monday. Early last year, FriendFinder postponed a public offering of up to $240 million, citing market conditions.

› Alligator trappers feel the bite of a changing economy
Alligator hunter Johnny Douglas says his job is now tougher than gator hide. For more than a quarter-century, Douglas, 46, like his father before him, made a decent living in Central Florida stalking, snaring and skinning alligators that strayed into a backyard or some other place where the reptile wasn't welcome. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission called on him 170 times last year. But this week he'll stop answering their calls and will tend lawns instead. Old-school trappers such as Douglas, whose livelihood depended largely on the sale of alligator hide, are calling it quits as the price of gas has soared and the price of alligator skins has plunged on the world market. He is the fifth in the past year to resign from the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program, which pays a stipend of $30 per gator to trappers who kill or remove alligators posing a threat to people, pets and property.
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› Late Brevard property taxes near historic highs
The number of property owners who didn't pay real estate taxes in 2010 remained near historic highs, according to records from the Brevard County Tax Collector's office. As of this month, the owners of 19,771 Brevard properties had not paid 2010 taxes. That's down about 2.5 percent from 20,281 owners at the same point last year. The total amount owed was $28.8 million. That was down from $31.6 million the year before, partly reflecting the sharp decrease in property values. According to Tax Collector Lisa Cullen, the value of the property with delinquent taxes this year was $635 million, down from $675 a year ago. As in previous years, homebuilders and developers owed the most taxes.

› Some Florida home insurance premiums could double in five years
Homeowners, some already hit with double-digit property insurance rate hikes in recent years, could see premiums more than double in five years. They also could lose their right to file claims for late-surfacing damage or suffer more home damage while they save up to make repairs. Those are possible outcomes predicted by some homeowners, local leaders and a major home builders group from the sweeping property insurance bill that hit Gov. Rick Scott's desk Wednesday. The governor has until May 26 to decide whether to sign it into law or veto it. Supporters of the bill, including insurers, say the bill could strengthen the state's property insurance market and draw more private insurers to Florida — a key goal for Scott and other state leaders who want policyholders to have more insurance options. Many homeowners in South Florida have only the option of insuring their homes with state-backed Citizens Property Insurance.


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