Lobbyists play key role in government

Local officials say counties’ interests are ignored at the state level; lobbyists close the gap

By Rachael Yaeger and Jennifer Gager | gargoyle@flagler.edu

St. Johns County pays David Ramba up to $10,000 a quarter to lobby for the county’s interests at the state government level. But, don’t we have local representatives and senators that should represent local issues?

“They [local representatives] represent the people, not local government,” Ramba said.

St. Johns County has three local senators and three representatives that represent the county. However, even with all these representatives state Sen. Stephen Wise said, “You cannot know everything about everything.” Still, average citizens often do not see the need for lobbyists.

Many people perceive lobbyists as bribing, persuading, unethical individuals. Mary Goldsmith, legislative assistant to state Rep. Don Davis, said in an e-mail, “Although you might think otherwise, lobbyists are an integral part of the political process as they spend much of their time meeting with elected officials on issues of interest.”

Goldsmith also noted that a lobbyist’s job is to persuade representatives by providing the run-down on legislation and issues.

“I recommend lobbyists because local governments have vested interests in state policy,” said state representative Dr. William Proctor.

Proctor, who is Chancellor of Flagler College, said county and city commissioners cannot afford to take the time to focus on issues in Tallahassee because most are part-time positions and their primary position is to govern locally. Lobbyists can often close the gap between local government needs and state policies.

Proctor said elected officials do not have enough time to track every bill in the House and Senate and gain votes needed for the bill’s passing.

“Lobbyists are the mouthpiece for the county in Tallahassee,” Ramba said.

This is where lobbyists representing local governments work hand-in-hand with local elected representatives.

“Local governments are still a special interest and want to get state funding,” Ramba said, and lobbyists’ goal for local governments is to “combat cutting local government out of the process [of laws].”

For example, if a large company wanted to change the laws on billboards, but the local government had specific billboard statues for city beautification, then the lobbyist could work to represent the local area’s concerns.

If Proctor introduces a bill in the House for funding of the Hastings water management system, he would work with Ramba, the county’s lobbyist, to get the bill passed.

Proctor would rely on Ramba to find a person in the Senate to introduce an identical bill, to persuade strong objectors to the bill and to inform representatives of the issue.

According to Wise, “the relationship [with lobbyists] is essential.” He said they “become a go-between” for different areas of government, from the governor’s office to the legislative bodies.

A lobbyist “makes it a lot easier because you cannot be everyone,” Wise said.

Wise recently met with the St. Johns County School Board to discuss funding. Two lobbyists were also at the meeting to bridge knowledge gaps about state funding options. Wise said, “Lobbyists have lots of knowledge.”

Wise said lobbyists “give us [local governments] an expert to provide technical data.” They are also responsible for bringing city and county commissioners up to speed on issues that affect them.

Currently, Ramba’s primary focus for St. Johns County is on transportation. He said the area lacks access to alternative roads. With I-95 as a main roadway, Ramba said more roads need to be added, but the county is “always fighting Jacksonville for funding.”

Although lobbyists are often associated with large corporations, lobbyists working for local governments can work to pass legislation for school funding, beach renourishment, utility solutions and roadway funding.

Bills on these issues when passed, some say, would benefit residents in St. Johns County because of the united efforts of local lobbyists and the area’s representatives.

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