Florida Government Officials Forced to Choose: Public Service or Lobbying?

Several elected officials failed this week to get a federal judge to block new Florida rules preventing individuals in government offices from acting as paid lobbyists.

The new limitations were added as an amendment to the Florida state Constitution, with an overwhelming 78.9% of the vote. The enhanced rules prevent public officials from lobbying on nearly any subject at any level of Florida government. However, earlier this year, the Legislature gave the amendment teeth by passing laws to implement these restrictions, including a 10,000 dollar fine for violations.

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Palm Beach County commissioner Mack Bernard and four other elected officials filed a federal lawsuit to prevent the law’s implementation on Dec. 21, asking that it be ruled unconstitutional on first amendment grounds.

“These expansive new restrictions on lobbying profoundly and impermissibly constrain core First Amendment rights of current and former public officials. Lobbying — that is, the practice of directly communicating with government decision makers to inform and influence government policy and practice — has long been recognized as conduct entitled to robust protection under the First Amendment.”

The plaintiffs argued that the law’s ban on officials from lobbying six years after they leave office is too long and would not stand up to strict scrutiny since a shorter ban would achieve the same goals and therefore isn’t a government interest.

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The plaintiff has examples, as several states and the U.S. Senate have two-year bans, while the U.S. House of Representatives has a one-year lobbying ban for officials after leaving office. The question is, do those bans work?

The federal judge was not convinced and rejected the plaintiffs’ motion to block the law as the case proceeds. In the meant

The rules are set to go into effect on Dec. 31 and are already shaking up the world of Florida politics, government, and lobbying. Some officials have already resigned from their government posts. According to the Sun Sentinel, an attorney involved in challenging the law predicted that more resignations could come in the hours before the restrictions take effect, presumably out of a preference for lobbying over governing, even with the delay. Others may be sacrificing their lobbying practices. Either way, choices are being made.

The number of officials potentially affected by the law, those who are lobbyists or who plan to be, is unknown. However, some prominent South Florida officials were affected. One was Bernard. Another was  Miami-Dade School Board member Lubby Navarra.

Other notable officials included Steve Geller, a Broward County commissioner and former Democratic leader in the Florida Senate, whose law practice involves some lobbying in the state Legislature.

Former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, originally proposed a constitutional amendment. In comments to the Sun Sentinel, he detailed the issue his amendment is attacking.

“It seemed to me that we had a sub rosa culture of people going into public office, whether it was elected office or appointed office, and creating a soft landing for themselves in the lobbying community. I saw circumstances where people I served with in the Legislature spent their last year in the Legislature basically as an audition for which lobbying firm they could get hired by.”

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