For all you Florida Legislature watchers: We follow the dollars

By: - April 17, 2019 7:00 am

The Florida Republican and Democratic parties raised more than $6.2 million in contributions in the run-up to this spring’s Florida legislative session, according to the state Division of Elections.

The Republicans collected $5.3 million. The Democrats raised just over $900,000.

The contributions during the first three months of 2019 from utility companies, hospitals, trial lawyers, theme parks, pharmaceutical companies, marijuana growers, private prisons and tobacco companies are important because they were timed to the Florida Legislature’s March 5 kickoff.

And the Republican Party’s 5-to-1 fundraising advantage over the Democrats reflects the fact that House and Senate GOP leaders are the ones with the power to steer the legislative agenda.

But the party money also offers a window into many of the issues and special interest groups at play in the 2019 session, which ends on May 3. Here’s a look at where the influence dollars are going:


The single largest amount of contributions to the Republicans – more than  $600,000 – came from health care companies. And much of it is tied to Republican House Speaker Jose Oliva’s effort to make it easier to open new hospitals and other medical facilities.

The measure has already passed the House. It is opposed by groups such as the Florida Hospital Association (which contributed $15,000 to the GOP), and the so-called “safety net” hospitals, which include the large public and teaching hospitals in the state. The safety net facilities contributed $10,000, election records show.

For-profit hospitals want to make it easier to license  new facilities. Facilities owned by the massive, for-profit Hospital Corporation of America funneled  $40,000 to Republicans, and  $15,000 to Democrats.

A Senate bill (SB 1712) that would make it easier to open new hospitals wouldn’t make it simpler for some other health care concerns – like nursing homes and hospices – to open new facilities.

Still, hospice companies contributed $25,000 to the GOP, with $20,000 coming from Vitas Services, a Miami-Dade County-based company, records show.


Another big money fight reflected in the contributions is the effort to stop Floridians who have home or vehicle damage to “assign” their insurance cases to lawyers or companies that then turn around and fight insurance companies over the damage claims.

The GOP received a $50,000 contribution from Auto Glass America, an Arizona company that repairs broken windshields. Car repair companies like Auto Glass America want to be able to get people to assign them to handle insurance benefits,  and – as they hoped – legislators left them out of the bill (HB 7065)  that passed the House last week.

Property casualty insurance companies, which argue that the system used to assign insurance claims has been abused, contributed $25,000 to Republicans.

But the election records show even larger contributions from another group fighting the legislation: trial lawyers. Their political committee contributed $125,000 to the GOP. And individual law firms have also chipped in. Among the largest was $80,000 from Robert Rubenstein, a Miami trial lawyer, records show.

The trial lawyers’ association gave $40,000 to Democrats.


Utility companies have always been generous contributors to Florida’s politicians. This year is no exception.

The utility companies gave $260,000 to the Republicans and $40,000 to the Democrats, records show. Florida Power & Light led the utility pack, with $100,000 to the GOP and $30,000 to the Democrats.

Near the top of FPL’s agenda is legislation (SB 796) that would allow utilities to pass on costs to their customers for moving utility lines underground. The companies and their supporters say the legislation is needed to help Florida’s electrical grid better cope with hurricane damage.

Opponents say the measure could lead to higher utility bills for customers, including those who would not directly benefit from the underground facilities.


Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to import cheaper prescription drugs from Canada. Lawmakers appear willing to oblige him (HB 19), although the proposal would need federal approval to become a reality.

Pharmaceutical interests have contributed at least $62,000 to the Republicans, including $25,000 from the national organization representing the drug manufacturers and research companies. The drug companies strongly oppose the legislation.


Lawmakers are considering legislation (HB 7119) to raise the legal smoking age to 21, up from 18.

National tobacco companies – whose business could be hurt by the legislation – gave $125,000 to the GOP, records show.

Dosal, a Florida-based tobacco company, contributed another $61,000. But its main interest remains blocking any legislation that would require the company  to make payments under the state’s 1997 settlement with the tobacco companies over smokers’ illnesses and deaths.

Lawmakers already passed, and DeSantis signed into law, a bill that allows sick Floridians to smoke medical marijuana.

With their lucrative licenses, marijuana companies are becoming players in the campaign contribution game. Two growers gave $50,000 to the GOP, records show.

The law firm of John Morgan, the Orlando trial lawyer who bankrolled the 2016 amendment drive to legalize medical marijuana, contributed $75,000 to Republicans.


The major Florida theme parks bought a ticket to the 2019 Legislature.

Disney World and Universal Orlando hosted Florida Republicans for weekend getaways in January and February. Disney listed $55,562 in in-kind contributions, including theme park passes and hotel rooms for its event. Universal listed nearly $101,000 in similar contributions.

Disney wrote another $135,000 in checks to the GOP, records show. Universal contributed another $35,000. And Comcast, which owns Universal, chipped in another $50,000.

Disney gave $10,000 to Democrats, records show. Comcast contributed $12,500.

The theme parks support legislation (HB 261) that would allow them to create promotional agreements with beer companies. But the measure is stalled in the Senate.


Lawmakers are advancing legislation (SB 874) that would increase the upper cap on consumer loans to 36 percent, up from 30 percent.

The measure would create a “pilot” program for the loans, which supporters say will help lower-income Floridians who can’t  access traditional loans. Opponents say it could create high-debt trap for unsuspecting borrowers.

Amscot, Florida’s largest payday lender, gave $15,000 to the GOP, records show. And it gave $15,000 to the Democrats.


Senate leaders are trying cut a major gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe. It may or may not happen before the session ends on May 3.

But the state’s other gambling interests, including horse and former dog tracks, want a share of the benefits, including sports betting that has recently been authorized under federal law.

The Jacksonville Kennel Club gave $75,000 to the GOP. The Palm Beach Kennel Club contributed $15,000, records show, and the Calder Race Track gave $15,000.

The two kennel clubs and the Calder Race Track gave a total of $20,000 to Democrats.


Other contributions worth noting: U.S. Sugar Corp. gave $40,000 to Democrats The company clashed with Republican DeSantis during last year’s race for governor.

The GEO Group, which operates private prisons in Florida and has a financial interest in the the state budget, contributed $160,000 to Republicans, records show.

There was no “eye war” this year in the Legislature, where the optometrists make a major effort to expand their ability to treat patients. But their political committee gave $75,000 to the Republicans anyway. The Florida Medical Association, whose members include the ophthalmologists who generally oppose the optometrists politically, gave $25,000 to the GOP, records show.





















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Lloyd Dunkelberger
Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger has been covering Florida government for over three decades. He’s reported and edited in Tallahassee for the New York Times Regional Newspapers group, Florida Politics, and the News Service of Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville and Palm Beach County and got his journalism degree at the University of Florida.