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.
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.