College presidents grapple with hiring, firing lobbyists

CORCORAN 3.29 (2)
“If you give someone a mixed message, they’ll pick the message they want."

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has made no secret of his views on government entities hiring outside lobbyists.

He’s not a fan.

And since taking over as Florida’s education czar, the former House Speaker has made his thoughts known to leaders of the state college system.

Corcoran’s sentiments have sparked some college presidents to fire lobbyists who represent schools or affiliated direct-support organizations.

But with little pushback Thursday, presidents, acting as the Association of Florida Colleges, voted to renew a $95,000-a-year contract with the firm The Southern Group to lobby on their behalf.

Just before taking over as House Speaker in 2016, Corcoran vilified cities, counties, school boards and other local governments for hiring contract lobbyists to represent them in the Legislature, a crusade he continued throughout his tenure leading the House.

Since becoming education commissioner early this year after Gov. Ron DeSantis’ election, he has shared some of that same loathing with the heads of Florida’s 28 state colleges.

“My counsel to the colleges was that that’s a decision for them to make, but I personally do not believe that taxpayers ought to be footing the bill for contract lobbyists for any government entity,” Corcoran told The News Service of Florida in a recent interview. “And that is happening, whether it’s direct or indirect. Don’t tell me you’re paying it out of your foundation, because you’re funded by taxpayers. When we did an expose on foundations, when I was Speaker, we found that taxpayer funds were paying for the staff at the foundations.”

Corcoran, however, doesn’t seem to be bothered that the association that represents colleges is retaining one of Tallahassee’s most powerful lobbying firms.

At a business meeting of the presidents on Thursday, just one college chief raised an objection to the $95,000 contract for The Southern Group.

The agreement identifies The Southern Group’s Seth McKeel, a former House appropriations chairman, as the agent representing the colleges.

After introduction of the agenda item Thursday morning, Florida Gateway College President Larry Barrett raised questions about hiring a contract lobbyist, given Corcoran’s objections.

“I don’t understand how we’re going to do this,” said Barrett, who participated in the meeting by telephone. “We’ve been partnering with the commissioner the past few months, and the commissioner, one of his thoughts is about lobbyists, and many of us have gotten rid of our personal lobbyists, per his thoughts. I think the council (of presidents) has to think about what we’re about to do today, based on his request, and I’ll be voting no, against it.”

Two other presidents joined Barrett in opposition to the contract, which was overwhelmingly approved.

North Florida College President John Grosskopf, who shook his head when the vote came up but did not speak out, told the News Service he was a “no” vote because Corcoran had “invited us to join in a unified approach where he’s going to be our advocate.”

Grosskopf said he wanted to make sure that, by continuing to retain a lobbyist, the presidents did not challenge Corcoran’s vision for the college system.

Corcoran has pledged to the presidents his intent to “help the college system thrive,” Grosskopf said.

“That’s something new for us,” he added.

Grosskopf, whose college is based in Madison, said he had no objection to retaining The Southern Group “in principle.” Instead, the president said he wanted to make sure the lobbying plans were in alignment with what Corcoran has laid out for the state college system, something he said he did not have enough information about in time for Thursday’s vote.

In a telephone interview Thursday afternoon, Barrett, whose college is one of the five smallest in the state, indicated he wanted to capitalize on Corcoran’s pledge to represent the colleges to lawmakers, whose 2020 Legislative Session begins in January.

“I just feel that he offered it, and it’s worth the effort and it’s worth the chance,” he said.

Barrett, who is in his fifth year as Florida Gateway’s president, said his college last year hired an outside lobbyist for the first time to try to secure finding for a STEM building. That effort did not pay off, Barrett said, and the school did not renew the contract.

And, Barrett said, the association hasn’t seen a great return on its investment in lobbyists of late.

“I just find it odd that we’ve hired lobbyists many years, this is only my fifth year, and we’ve not had any success in four other sessions,” he said. “I thought this was a different approach. So I’m running with supporting this (Corcoran) initiative. I feel strongly that we should just try it and save those monies.”

According to the state’s lobbyist registration database, several colleges or their direct-support organizations have had lobbying turnover.

For example, Indian River State College Foundation’s two lobbyists, Ken Pruitt and Meghan Hoza, withdrew on Aug. 13, according to the database.

Lobbyists representing other colleges may have been let go, but that hasn’t shown up on the website yet.

For example, Stephanie Grutman Zauder is one of 14 Broward College Foundation lobbyists who were told verbally their contracts would not be renewed.

Contract lobbyists can bring “intelligence and resources” that colleges’ in-house lobbyists “would never have access to,” Zauder told the News Service.

“State colleges are huge institutions with vast needs. And lobbyists do more than just advocate for one single issue. We help them build relationships. We help them navigate agencies. We help them develop appropriations requests. We provide strategic advice. To suggest that an organization doesn’t need a contract lobbyist because an agency head will represent their needs is misleading,” she said in a telephone interview.

Tallahassee Community College President Jim Murdaugh, the chairman of the colleges’ Council of Presidents, said Corcoran “never said to me, ‘Jim, get rid of your lobbyists.’ ”

Murdaugh relied on what he said was one of his favorite lines to describe the situation.

“If you give someone a mixed message, they’ll pick the message they want,” he said.

News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.


5 comments

  • Larry Gillis

    September 20, 2019 at 9:29 am

    So, what about local governments hiring lobbyists (at my expense) to lobby in Tally, pushing projects of which I do not approve? This whole system is rotten. Vote LIBERTARIAN.

    Larry Gillis, Vice-Chair, Lee County Libertarians

    • Ed

      September 23, 2019 at 9:58 am

      Pushing projects that you do not approve of huh Larry? So when did you win an election and get put into office? Every project has someone opposed to it so if one person opposes it then the project should be dropped? Or just if you oppose it then the project should be dropped? Sounds like we should just anoint King Larry to rule over all of us simpletons. Here is a thought Larry, run for office and get elected. People think you are hair brained and wont elect you? Poor King Larry.

  • Ed

    September 23, 2019 at 10:14 am

    And the fact that you were elected in New Hampshire is meaningless in Florida. We have five counties that each have a higher population than the entire state of New Hampshire including one county with more than twice as many people as that whole state. A state representative in New Hampshire is on the same footing politically as a county commissioner of a midsize county here as far as the number of voters they represent. Enjoy your retirement in sunny Florida but leave your whacky political thoughts back home in New Hampshire. Or put your name on the ballot in Florida so you can see just how few people support your philosophy. Be sure to say hello at the Libertarian caucus in Tallahassee. Oh wait there is not a single libertarian elected in any of the 160 representatives and senators. Libertarians are politically irrelevant and will remain so until your party can win elections. Good day.

  • Ed

    September 23, 2019 at 10:30 am

    Personally I support local governments hiring lobbyists. So my vote cancels Larry’s vote. If local governments do not have lobbyists representing them then private sector businesses will be the only ones being represented. If that were to happen then local governments would be steam rolled by the business lobbyists. And that is the bottom line for what Richard wants. He wants business lobbyists to be unopposed by local governments so that the business interests can run roughshod and unopposed legislatively. I for one am happy that my local government has someone at the table to fight for our local interests.

  • Sonja Fotch

    September 23, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    Bottom line the gopers destroyed the college president appointment system to get them some money hungry Presidents to drum up money for pet projects. It sure as hell has not been about higher education. Right now the gopers are trying to take over local school boards! Why the damn money and destruction of public education! Watch Looting Lenny try his darnest to get the money! It AINT about public education! It is to destroy and get the money!

Comments are closed.


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