PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Pinellas School District lobbyist Steve Swartzel describes himself as a helpful liaison—the district’s eyes and ears in Tallahassee. “I think I provide a valuable service,” Swartzel said. “I try to do the best I can.”
But Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran has a different view on Swartzel and the army other lobbyists who collectively earn a fortune in compensation from local governments around Florida. “I think it’s an absolute waste of taxpayer money,” Corcoran said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Corcoran tried to ban local governments from hiring lobbyists to influence state lawmakers but in the end had to settle with full disclosure of lobbyist contracts which are now posted on the House website.
Swartzel, who charges the district $65,000 a year for his services, is among the first registered lobbyists representing local governments around Tampa Bay to submit his Pinellas School District contract to the House under Rule 17.1(i). That new disclosure rule is a fundamental link in Corcoran’s broad commitment to transparency in government spending.
Corcoran believes local governments ought to represent their own interest rather than pay hired guns in Tallahassee to do it for them. “It comes from hardworking taxpayers who are going out every single day working to try to put food on their table for their family, “Corcoran said. “Now they’re having somebody reach into their pocket to give to a high paid lobbyist to do something that should have been done for them anyway by their elected officials.”
Pinellas School District Superintendent Michael Grego insists that Swartzel’s $65,000 annual fee is a good deal for the district. Before his retirement in 2013 Swartzel made nearly twice that much as a top administrator for the Pinellas School District and according to Swartzel, devoted about half of his time to lobbying. “We really don’t consider Steve as a lobbyist as we think about it,” Grego said. He prefers calling Swartzel a “liason.”
Grego and two Pinellas school board members all describe Swartzel a bargain for the district.”We haven’t spent one penny more than we have in the past,” Grego said. “Steve’s got a lot of good relationships with the legislators up there,” said School Board Chair Peggy O’Shea.”He’s very well respected.”
School Board Member Carol Cook signed Swartzel’s first $130,000, two-year contract in 2014 when she was Chair. “when you look at the number of students that are being impacted by the person we’ve hired to represent us in Tallahassee it comes down to a small piece of change but the impact is huge,” said Cook.
“We want or legislature to make really informed decisions so Steve is an educator and he helps answer questions before they start passing bills,” Grego said. “Therein lies the problem with government waste,” Corcoran said. “When you have people call that a bargain that’s our problem and that’s got to get fixed.”
The Speaker believes that local government should send their own elected officials to Tallahassee rather than hire professionals ad added expense to taxpayers. “Pinellas county has a future speaker of the house sitting right there in Pinellas County they have a senator whose running the entire budget for the state,’ Said Corcoran. Why doesn’t the school board just call up to their sitting future speaker and their appropriations chairman and say hey can you help us with this or what do you think about this. Why in the world do the taxpayer shave to dole out 650000 dollars to somebody when they have those two people they’ve elected sitting there.”
It turns out the Speaker’s own brother is one of the legion of lobbyists who earn a living representing local government agencies in Tallahassee. Michael Corcoran’s Pasco-based firm Corcoran and Johnston counts the Hillsborough PTC, Tampa Bay Water, Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority and the USF Student Government among its clients. Collectively, those governments pay Corcoran’s firm $329,000 for lobbying services.
Corcoran’s Press Aide Fred Piccolo concedes that potentially makes for some awkward family gatherings but insists it is proof that the Speaker is dedicated to his goal of cutting government waste. “The truth is he [Speaker] believes what he believes and his brother knows that,” Piccolo said. “If people need proof that he can’t be bought or influenced from doing what he thinks is right, look at his own brother.”