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Local officials seek to block lobbying restrictions

The Leon County Courthouse, view from the southwest
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Leon County officials joined their counterparts in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties in filing a lawsuit in federal court to block new lobbying restrictions that go into effect Saturday

A federal judge will hear arguments Jan. 27 in an attempt by a group of local elected officials to block new lobbying restrictions that they argue violate First Amendment rights.

The officials from Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Leon counties filed a lawsuit last week in federal court in Miami challenging the restrictions, which take effect Saturday. Florida voters in 2018 passed a constitutional amendment approving the restrictions, and the Legislature this year approved bills to carry out the amendment.

The lawsuit focuses heavily on part of the restrictions that will prevent state and local officials from lobbying other government bodies while in office. At least some of the plaintiffs do lobbying work.

“Under Amendment 12 (the 2018 constitutional amendment), a local elected official, such as a school board member, is prohibited from lobbying before Congress or a federal agency, even on matters wholly unrelated to the official’s role with local government,” the lawsuit said. “Similarly, the new restrictions would prohibit a city commissioner with a municipality in Palm Beach County from advocating in Orange County or elsewhere.”

In addition to restricting current public officials, the amendment also prevents former state and local officials from lobbying their former government bodies for six years after leaving office. In the past, for example, former state lawmakers have been blocked from lobbying the Legislature for two years after leaving office.

The lawsuit, reported earlier Friday by the Broward Bulldog news site, contends that the restrictions are overly broad.

“The only government interest that could potentially be served by the advocacy restrictions is the prevention of quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of quid pro quo corruption,” a motion for a preliminary injunction filed Tuesday said. “But that purpose does not empower a broadly worded prohibition that effectively shuts off all access to political speech. … The restriction sweeps too broadly and impermissibly restricts substantial, legitimate First Amendment activity. Very plainly, it is a far cry from legislation that is tailored narrowly in its restrictions on political speech.”

U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom on Thursday scheduled a Jan. 27 hearing in Miami on the preliminary-injunction motion. The defendants — the Florida Commission on Ethics, Attorney General Ashley Moody and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — had not filed arguments as of Friday afternoon, according to an online docket.

The plaintiffs are Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rene Garcia, a former state senator and House member; South Miami Mayor Javier Fernandez, a former state House member; Palm Beach County Commissioner Mack Bernard, a former state House member; Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor; and Miami Shores Village Council member Crystal Wagar.

As examples of the plaintiffs’ interest in the restrictions, Garcia is executive vice president of New Century Partnership, LLC, a consulting firm that provides lobbying services, according to the lawsuit. Meanwhile, Fernandez is a lawyer who represents clients before county and municipal boards.

The 2018 constitutional amendment, which was placed on the ballot by the state Constitution Revision Commission, received support from nearly 79 percent of voters.

Corrected: January 1, 2023 at 8:05 PM EST
The original version of this article stated Attorney General Pam Bondi was named in the suit. Florida's present Attorney General is Ashley Moody, and it is Moody who is named in the lawsuit.