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Florida lobbyists busier than ever, even amid a pandemic

Florida lobbyists pulled in an estimated quarter of a billion dollars in 2019, a record amount that marks a 22% increase over the past decade. They took in another $50 million to $80 million during the first quarter of 2020, according to public records — and insiders say the influence industry shows few signs of slowing down, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Personally, I’ve never been busier than I am right now,” says Jeff Kottkamp, a former lieutenant governor and current chairman of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists. “We’re primarily in the information business, and in this environment of uncertainty, our clients are starving for information.”

Dean Cannon, a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and president and CEO of GrayRobinson, says government and private-sector clients alike are finding lobbyists a “useful tool” for coping with this recession, particularly as federal lawmakers have passed trillions of dollars in rescue legislation.

The firm — which operates 14 offices in Florida and one in Washington, D.C. — has put together virtual briefings on everything from the future of sports in Florida to planned school reopenings. It’s also helped clients apply for different types of relief from both the federal and state government. “Not only haven’t we lost clients, but we have picked up a couple looking for ways to respond, whether it’s personal protective equipment or helping cities and counties parse through the two-layer cake of federal and state monies that are available,” Cannon says.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, many Florida lobbying firms saw their book of business shrink, and lobbying association dues dropped off. In July, Gov. Ron DeSantis slashed more than $1 billion from the state budget — and next year will undoubtedly be worse.

“Lawmakers are going to have to confront a significant budget shortfall, the likes of which our leaders have never seen. We really don’t know what the total will be yet,” says Ron Book, a longtime lobbyist from South Florida.

Nick Iarossi, co-owner of Capital City Consulting in Tallahassee, says the pandemic is also taking a toll on another key part of the influence game — political fundraising. “COVID has certainly prevented candidates from aggressively raising political dollars and walking door to door meeting voters,” he said in an e-mail. “Those who raised money early have an advantage over those who waited since COVID has made political giving more challenging. Digital outreach and TV advertising will become more important now to reach voters, which are normally the highest cost campaign components.”

Following is a look at Capital City Consulting and Florida’s other biggest lobbying firms, ranked by Florida earnings, and their take on how COVID is impacting Florida’s political landscape.

Big Spenders

At least 18 companies and organizations broke the half-million dollar mark with their 2019 state lobbying spending. Exact numbers are impossible to come by because state law requires only that firms report payments in a range of values.

Florida’s Top Lobbying Firms

1. Ballard Partners Brian Ballard, President

2019 COMPENSATION: Approximately $19.5 million ($10.6 million legislative and $8.8 million executive branch)

ABOUT: Ballard, an attorney and one-time chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez, got into lobbying in 1998 when he and his former father-in-law, Jim Smith, a former Florida attorney general, launched Smith & Ballard. Smith exited in 2011, and Ballard changed the shop’s name to Ballard Partners. Over the past decade, the Tallahassee-based firm has doubled its Florida business roster and has expanded to seven Florida offices staffed by more than 20 lobbyists. The firm opened a Washington, D.C., office in early 2017. A year later, Politico dubbed Ballard — who raised millions for Trump’s 2016 campaign as his Florida finance chairman — the “most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.” Ballard Partners raked in about $18.9 million last year from 109 federal lobbying clients, in addition to the $19.5 million it made doing Florida lobbying. The firm has earned millions more representing international clients, such as the government of the Dominican Republic, the Republic of Kosovo and the Embassy of Qatar, among others. In April, it opened an outpost in Tel Aviv staffed by former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler and World Bank veteran Oscar Chemerinski.

NOTABLE CLIENTS: Ballard’s Florida team represents more than 200 clients across virtually all major business sectors, including tech giants Amazon and Google, pharmaceutical heavyweights AstraZeneca and Bayer, and numerous Florida-based businesses, such as U.S. Sugar, Mosaic and Kitson-Babcock. Notable sporting industry clients include Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees, the PGA Tour, the National Basketball Association and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The firm also represents a handful of cities, university foundations and hospital systems in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic — including Jackson Health System in Miami-Dade County, Shands Teaching Hospital and Clinics in Gainesville and Tampa General — as well as the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, which advocates for 14 of the largest hospital systems in the most densely populated regions of the state.

COVID-19 IMPACT: Dealing with multiple levels of government is essential right now, says Carol Bracy, Ballard’s Tallahassee-based vice president and managing partner. “We have to really think very strategically about how they all intersect — it’s not all Tallahassee-focused,” she says. “We’ve got a really healthy D.C. practice — a great team of professionals that really understand that federal role and all the workings of federal government and Congress and all the various funding stimulus relief packages that are coming out that helped inform our Florida team and keep us ahead of what’s happening. That has been really instrumental in helping our Florida-based clients.”

2. The Southern Group Paul Bradshaw, Founder & Chairman

2019 COMPENSATION: Approximately $15.4 million ($8.4 million legislative and $7 million executive branch)

ABOUT: Bradshaw co-founded the Southern Strategy Group in 1998. Two decades later, the firm — rebranded last year as simply The Southern Group — is one of the nation’s largest lobbying firms, with nine offices across four southern states, including six in Florida. Affiliates include the Midwest Strategy Group in Lansing, Mich., and a Baton Rouge, La., shop that now goes by the Southern Strategy Group name. The firm has more than 25 Florida lobbyists who represent 220 clients. Like many businesses, the firm has had to find ways to do its work remotely during the pandemic and in the process created a public policy-focused COVID-19 daily newsletter that’s garnered more than 14,000 subscribers. “We also brought senior elected and appointed officials in Florida to our clients’ home offices through exclusive weekly Zoom webinars, and we spearheaded a first-of-its-kind statewide virtual education policy conference that brought together 200-plus top education policymakers, thought leaders and advocates in the state,” says Bradshaw.

NOTABLE CLIENTS: The firm represents some of the biggest names in business across the state and the country, including Apple, Airbnb, IBM, Fidelity Investments, Wells Fargo, Darden Restaurants, Ernst & Young, FedEx, Florida Blue, International Speedway and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. It also represents a slew of cities — including Orlando, Lakeland, Sanford and Sarasota — as well as several towns, counties and universities.

COVID-19 IMPACT: Bradshaw says the pandemic has brought about behavioral changes that “otherwise would have taken many years,” especially with regard to the use technology and remote connectivity. He predicts “disruption will become the norm as public policy evolves to meet such changes, likely against the backdrop of constrained public sector budgets due to the virus’s economic impacts. Uncertainty also creates fertile ground for divisive politics, so don’t expect partisanship to diminish any time soon.”

3. Capital City Consulting Nick Iarossi and Ron LaFace Jr., Owners

2019 COMPENSATION: Approximately $12.5 million ($7.5 million legislative and $5 million executive branch)

ABOUT: LaFace, the son of an attorney, and Iarossi, a former legislative staffer and attorney, founded the firm in January 2003 along with Gerald Wester and Pat O’Connell, who have both since retired. Today, the shop has 12 lobbyists — six of whom are Florida-licensed attorneys, who only lobby and do not practice law. Jim Boxold, a former policy adviser to Jeb Bush and secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation under former Gov. Rick Scott, is managing partner of the firm. A couple of years ago, Capital City added a Tampa office. Earlier this year, the firm moved its Tallahassee team into a $4.5-million headquarters on Jefferson Street across from the Capitol.

NOTABLE CLIENTS: The firm has approximately 200 clients and specializes in financial services, education, insurance, retail, information technology, procurement, appropriations, disaster management, manufacturing, gaming, telecom, utilities, environmental and regulated industries. Some heavyweights include CVS Health, the Florida Association of Health Plans, GEO Group, Florida Power & Light, Lennar Ventures, Safelite Group, the Everglades Foundation, USAA and Zurich American Insurance.

COVID-19 IMPACT: Iarossi says the firm has been busy keeping clients informed of changes resulting from executive orders, essential business lists and agency regulatory waivers. “With the executive branch operating under emergency powers, it essentially runs the state through the duration of the emergency and is very active changing policies and procuring services to respond to the pandemic and the economic crisis left in its wake,” he says. “Government is also playing a larger role right now in how businesses and individuals can survive and operate during the crisis, so our job is much more demanding in shaping those decisions.”

4. Ronald L. Book, PA Ron Book, Founder & Owner

2019 COMPENSATION: Approximately $10.1 million ($8.6 million legislative and $1.5 million executive branch)

ABOUT: A former senior aide to Democratic Gov. Bob Graham, Book opened his own shop in 1987 after running the governmental affairs practice at Sparber, Shevin, Shapiro, Heilbronner & Book. Two other non-lawyer lobbyists practice with him. Kelly Mallette, former senior policy adviser for the mayor of Miami, is senior director of governmental affairs. Rana Brown joined the firm 12 years ago after serving as governmental affairs director for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and Miami-Dade County. Wins this past session included securing funds for pay raises for direct care staff for the state’s iBudget program, which helps people with disabilities live independently. Book also helped secure a $1.8-million appropriation for Sturgeon AquaFarms that was later vetoed by DeSantis. The Northwest Florida farm, which breeds, raises and harvests beluga sturgeon, was decimated by Hurricane Michael in 2018. The team also advocated on behalf of the Florida Apartment Association for legislation rooting out fraud and abuse related to emotional support animal documentation. The bill passed both chambers and was signed by the governor in June.

NOTABLE CLIENTS: Book’s firm has more than 100 clients, including 1-800 Contacts, Coca-Cola, Equifax, Gannett Media Group, GEO Group, Hard Rock Stadium and more than 20 Florida cities, most of them in South Florida. The firm also represents AshBritt, Keiser University, Auto Tag Management and Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit focused on the prevention of child sexual abuse. It was started by his daughter, Lauren Book, a Democratic state senator who represents Plantation.

COVID-19 IMPACT: Book says the pandemic “has had and will continue to have a significant impact on Florida’s political landscape” as the state loses revenue and there’s no telling how severe the damage will be or when the state will bounce back. “With an economy that is largely reliant on tourism and sales taxes, we just don’t know when people will feel good about traveling. I know that it has been reported recently that consumer confidence in Florida surpasses that of the rest of America, but it will take much more from outside of our Florida borders for tourism to again thrive. The closure was very significant for us. I also think lawmakers are going to rethink business interruption insurance and similar issues that came to light from closures.”

5. Greenberg Traurig Fred Baggett, Chairman of Tallahassee Office

2019 COMPENSATION: Approximately $7.3 million ($4.68 million legislative and $2.58 million executive branch)

ABOUT: The firm established its presence in Tallahassee in 1991 when it acquired the law firm of Roberts, Baggett, LaFace & Richard, then a 14-lawyer firm that was a prominent player in Florida’s government and political landscape dating back to its founding in 1973. Today, the Tallahassee office is home to a multidisciplinary legal and government affairs team with deep Florida roots who advise clients on everything from dispute resolution and transactional representation to governmental advocacy and corporate advice. Key lobbyists included Fred Baggett, Hayden Dempsey, Gus Corbella, Fred Karlinsky, Leslie Dughi, Elizabeth Dudek and Tim Stanfield. Among the firm’s big wins in 2020 was helping to secure $75 million in Medicaid reimbursement rate increases for nursing home providers. Greenberg Traurig represented LeadingAge Florida, an association comprised of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, which was part of a broader effort to seek increased funding for the industry. The firm also represented the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council as part of a consortium effort to preserve funding for the iBudget Waiver, a health insurance program that serves about 35,000 Floridians with intellectual and developmental disabilities — and helped secure roughly $271.5 million in additional funding for the program and an additional $85 million to increase personal support services and other needs for people with disabilities.

NOTABLE CLIENTS: Greenberg Traurig has a roster of more than 100 clients, including Associated Industries of Florida, AT&T, Ford, the Florida Hospital Association, JM Family Enterprises, LegalZoom, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Humana and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

COVID-19 IMPACT: "The state’s revenues have significantly decreased, which will certainly impact the state budget and every industry affected by that budget. At a time when there is more demand than ever for services, health, safety and welfare programs are expected to take on an increased focus in the policy arena," says Baggett, who is also a senior member of the firm's National Government Law & Policy Practice.


Read more in Florida Trend's August issue.
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