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How some of Florida’s top lobbyists produce blockbuster budget results

Saint Peters Blog, June 16, 2015

Editor’s note: The following is reproduced from INFLUENCE Magazine.

Spring and summer confirms Tallahassee is a different kind of place. In the morning light, azaleas and dogwoods blanket the city’s seven hills in pastel colors while gaggles of school children and geese eye each other from opposite street corners. One half expects to find Dr. Suess sitting on a bench sketching the scene. Florida’s Capital City is far removed from the “grotesque place” Ralph Waldo Emerson said he visited in 1827.

However, the public officers, speculators and desperadoes Emerson found are still here and the Governor remains “the button on which all things are hung.” That’s especially true when lawmakers begin in earnest writing a state budget until the governor exercises his line-item veto authority.

Speculation is part of the budget-making process as lobbyists and advocates seek funding for projects and programs. Then desperation hangs in the air during the final week of a 60-day session while they wait to see whether a year’s worth of work will result in a line item in the $77 billion state budget.

“It’s a different type of animal than any other part of the legislative session, for sure,” said Travis Blanton of the Johnson & Blanton lobbying firm. “You can’t ever relax or take time off with the budget. You’ve got to play through the whole process (because) you don’t know until the moment when they hit the print button that you are in the budget or not.”

To get money for programs, lobbyists such as Blanton chaperone their clients’ proposals through a maze of agency meetings; sub, appropriations and conference committees; and finally past the governor’s veto pen.

“To truly be successful in advocating for budget items, the real work starts in July and August with agencies,” Chris Dudley of the Southern Strategy Group said of a proposal’s journey from idea to line item. “Buy-in from the state agency on an idea can possibly translate into the agency making the proposal their priority and including it in their agency legislative budget request.”

A legislative budget request is the first milestone in securing funding. It’s followed by the governor’s recommendation, House and Senate spending proposals, and finally conference negotiations and a legislative budget subject to the governor’s approval.

The work is put on a fast track at the end of March when lawmakers finish talking about what to spend money on (the governor’s recommendation) and start deciding how much to spend.

“The rubber hits the road with allocations,” said Frank Mayernick of the Mayernick Group. “The bigger the allocations the happier everyone is.”

Allocations are the second milestone alerting lobbyists how much money is available, whether their cause is in the mix and the start of the final drive to secure the money. Blanton said it’s impossible to put in too much work preparing for this moment: work often performed in a gray area of uncertainty until the allocations are announced, dollar figures in black and white.

“It’s a lot of work that you may or may not see any action on until one day when a spreadsheet drops in the middle of March,” Blanton said. “Bills, they get filed and they get through the process and it’s regimented. Where with a budget item you can work on it for months and months and nothing happens until the subcommittee puts out its first take of the budget.”

The drama is heightened by the amount of money at stake. Florida spends about three-quarters of its budget through private contracts, the highest percent of state spending in the Southeast. About 60 percent of the state budget is directed towards health care and education.

Blanton, Tracy and Frank Mayernick, and Dudley work for different firms but are among the lobbyists who represent substance abuse, mental health and education interests in addition to their for-profit business clients.

They are among the more than 2,000 lobbyists who local governments, businesses and other groups dispatch to Tallahassee for a share of the budget. They testify in committee meetings to build a case to justify a request for tax dollars. They also identify lawmakers and decision-makers receptive to their arguments and work with them — by serving as researchers among other tasks — to build support for spending among the fiscally conservative Legislature.

“We have a Legislature that wants to see data and wants to see return on investment. They want to see outcomes,” Tracy Mayernick said.

In addition to navigating the bureaucracies of state agencies and the committee process, lobbyists must maneuver a landscape laced with ideological fault lines, pitted with political grudges and shaped by power lawmakers’ personal experiences and preferences.

“It is like riding a wave,” Mayernick said. “There are a lot of things that are out of your control that you are trying to operate within.”

Lawmakers’ personal experiences and beliefs are among the things lobbyists can’t control but that sometimes can work in their, or their client’s, favor. Mayernick recalls a committee chair, whom she declined to identify, who became an advocate for substance-abuse programs during the recession when lawmakers were reducing spending in all areas of the budget.

The chair had been an emergency room nurse and adopted the cause.

“We went in and said, ‘We know you want to help, we know this is important to you. We have collected data, implemented different systems to compare measurable results – let us help you make the argument,’” said Mayernick. The program, she said, resulted in savings elsewhere in the budget but had failed to gain traction until committee chair championed the proposal.

The strategy changes as each milestone is reached. Leading up to conference committee meetings, much of lobbyists’ time is spent in defense mode: simply keeping the idea alive for conference negotiations for the opportunity to score.

The leadership makeup of committees and chambers determines how much work is required in building a case for the money. Finding a lawmaker to advocate for the proposal is essential, of course. It’s even better if the lawmaker chairs a committee.

“But that changes from year to year. That’s what I really like about it,” said Blanton, who talks like he was bitten by a budget bug. He became deeply interested in the process while working in Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration when Bush “turned the budgeting process upside down.”

“You have to come up with a strategy based on the chairman, and that may change,” Blanton said. “In the era of term limits you may have someone who is a champion of an issue one year and the next thing you know they are termed out.”

Conference negotiations reveal how effective and thorough a lobbyist’s work has been in preparing the ground — the case presented to lawmakers — for the final push in the weeks leading up to April.

Blanton talks about working with lawmakers, agencies and legislative staff so that in the fog of the session’s final days when his proposal comes up there are no questions or hesitancy in the lawmakers’ reaction.

“There are so many items that get thrown at the legislators and their staff that you want when they see the issue they immediately know exactly what it does and what the impact is,” Blanton said.

All Blanton and the other lobbyists can do when the House and Senate go into conference is wait: The decision on what’s left in and what’s left out of the state budget rests with a handful of committee chairs and the Legislature’s presiding officers.

“The biggest budget secret sauce, though, is the allocation of new funds in the final few days of conference that is the result of the use of additional non-recurring funds and unspent funds from the current fiscal year,” Dudley said.

When lawmakers pull the “secret sauce” out of the pantry is when Blanton’s strategy of instant recognition of a proposal’s complexities and impacts can cash in. A dash of randomness may spice the transaction.

“We’re in the hall one night and the chairman walked out of the suite and said, ‘Hey Travis, what else do you have left?’” Blanton said, elaborating on his strategy of completely briefing lawmakers and staying focused until the very end.

“They were getting ready to make the final cut in the conference process, and we were able to be at the right place at the right time and an issue we had talked to the chairman about over and over had not made it onto the final list. With us being there at 11:30 at night and her seeing us prompted our issue to get on the list,” said Blanton, who secured the funding.

“You got to play until the last second; I’ve seen things that have been in the budget from day one and then at the last minute it’s kicked out,” Blanton said. “You have to play through the whole process: Right up until that puppy is printed after conference, anything can happen.”

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