Business

Feeney Working Capitol Halls to Polish AIF Image

By: Jim Turner | Posted: February 15, 2012 3:55 AM
Tom Feeney

Tom Feeney, Associated Industries of Florida

Faced with a credibility problem in the eyes of some of the state’s top lawmakers, one of Florida's oldest and most influential business advocacy organizations reached for a big gun -- a top-tier veteran who ran the House when many of those same lawmakers were still learning to navigate the maze of the Capitol hallways.

So far, with the current session reaching its midpoint, there has been little noticeable change in the day-to-day lobbying by Associated Industries of Florida in the Senate and House corridors, with former state House Speaker Tom Feeney instead of Barney Bishop at the helm of the 92-year-old “Voice of Florida Business.”

But it's not likely to stay that way in sessions to come.

With AIF’s priorities in place for the current session before he was hired, Feeney said he wasn’t given any mandates from the board. But change, in terms of direction and style, is expected over the summer in preparation for the 2013 session from Capitol insiders -- and even for Feeney himself, who also served in the U.S. House and was Jeb Bush’s running mate during his unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 1994.

“Our organization isn’t about one person or one president or CEO, it’s about advocating to make Florida a better place to do business, a more prosperous place, and therefore a better place to live and raise a family,” Feeney said.

“It’s a great opportunity, I’m sure that we’ll have an imprint long-term if I get an opportunity to stay long enough in some of the big-visioning issues for the future of Florida.

“But it’s not necessarily appropriate to make those changes in the first two, three months on the job.”

'RESERVOIR OF TRUST'

Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said AIF, during and after the 2011 session, “had reached a low ebb of credibility in the Senate” with the prior leadership’s approach “clumsy and brash.”

Gaetz said Feeney, who was House speaker in 2000, was the change of leadership needed “for the organization to become politically relevant again.”

“I believe there is a reservoir of trust and familiarity that Speaker Feeney can draw on from his years as a state legislator and as a speaker of the House,” Gaetz said.

“I believe Speaker Feeney brings a finesse and an understanding of the legislative process that has made AIF’s lobbying more effectual, and I expect, next year, AIF under Tom Feeney will again be a major force in state policy just as it was years ago.”

Capitol insiders add that change was needed at AIF, which competes for business interests with the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber and AIF are often in agreement on policy issues, from legal and education reform to trade questions. However, this year, the two organizations clashed in a high-profile dispute over the highly controversial destination gaming effort that sought to allow three huge casinos in South Florida.

Also, for nearly a decade, the business groups have conflicted over political candidates -- the Chamber doesn’t back trial lawyers or candidates with differing views on tort reform and union issues. 

The Chamber also is viewed as approaching issues through a consensus of its wide range of members.

Meanwhile, AIF has been focused on issues driven by a lobbyist-packed board. Also, Bishop, a former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, was facing internal criticism, such as when he suggested last year that board members of state-backed Citizens Property Insurance should be replaced if they were not dedicated to getting actuarially sound rates for the company.

Mark Wilson, Chamber president and CEO, said he doesn’t view AIF as a competitor. He believes his policy background and Feeney’s political background could make a “good team.”

“I really think there is an opportunity for perhaps there to be a new day, with new leadership and new attitude, about what pro-business legislators mean,” Wilson said.

Rick McAllister, president of the Florida Retail Associations, a frequent ally on business issues with AIF, said he hasn’t seen the criticisms leveled at AIF’s lobbying efforts.

“They’re a very effective group, they’re continuing to work well with other organizations,” McAllister said.

Still, McAllister said Feeney brings an advanced level of understanding of the legislative process.

“The legislative process is a pretty sticky wicket and so understanding how, in difficult situations, to maneuver the process, what levers to pull, which ropes to tug, are really important and so he knows all those things,” McAllister said. “He’s been there. He’s managed all those things.”

'MAKING FLORIDA A WELL-RESPECTED STATE'

Feeney, who spent six years in the U.S. House after his term as Florida House speaker, was hired as president in December and started a little more than a week before the 2012 session began.

He said his hiring was in part because he has long fought for the state’s business community.

“When I was in the legislative leadership -- speaker of the House under Governor Bush -- we were able to secure business tax cuts, lead the nation in job growth, we were becoming more prosperous every year,” Feeney said.

“I think helping policymakers in the Legislature and the governor’s office put in place an environment so Florida can again become the envy of the nation in job creation and economic development ... is a goal of mine and, I think, a lot of members of AIF.  I think I can help position to make AIF play a big role in making Florida a well-respected, envied state once again.”

When he was hired, the train was already moving, as the not-for-profit association’s board had already set its priorities for the current session, including support for the destination gaming bill that sought to establish a statewide gaming commission and allow the construction of mega-casinos in South Florida.

While the gaming bill has died in the House, the association’s other priorities -- backing efforts to revamp personal injury protection insurance and workers’ compensation costs by reducing the price physicians can charge for prescription drugs dispensed from their offices, as well as opposing legislation that seeks to permanently provide online travel companies with an unfair tax advantage -- remain alive.

As for the changes he may bring, it’s too early to say, he said.

He wouldn’t say if he will revisit a form of the “Principle Card,” which he issued as speaker to fellow Republicans that served as conservative checklists on legislation.

“I think I can help play a role in letting our advocacy team do the day-to-day work in the Capitol; maybe I can help put big-picture fingers on the board for members of AIF to help policymakers think long-term goals and strategies for Florida," Feeney said.

Meanwhile, he says, other statewide business groups such as the Chamber (he is a member), retail association and Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association that have been AIF partners on issues in the past will continue to find common ground about 90 percent of the time. But they will remain their own entity.

“Florida is too big and too diverse a state to have just one or two business advocacy groups. I think AIF can play a role that is unique,” he said. 

He has also met with Chamber leaders.

“I’m anxious not to duplicate each other’s work,” Feeney said. “AIF will maintain its own unique culture and style and tactical process.”




Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 215-9889.






Comments (3)

Bob Freeman
2:37PM FEB 15TH 2012
Great choice in Representative Feeney. I was getting concerned about some of the AIF stances.
Richard Thomas
9:19AM FEB 15TH 2012
What is the "credibility problem" that is stated in the first sentence of the story? That is never explained in the story.
LDouglas
8:09AM FEB 15TH 2012
Something I hope Mr. Feeney as well as Mr. Wilson will always keep in mind when lobbying on behalf of business. Businesses aren't machines. They're owned, operated, and supported by people. Most of whom even if they love their job don't live to work, they work to live. Please don't sacrifice our quality of life or our children's future for the sake of growth today.

(Especially when it comes to our water. For quantity and quality and not just for drinking and what comes out of our tap, but the water we recreate in or supplement our diet from. Which is what IMO, sets Florida apart and makes it an attractive place to live and do business.)

BTW, when we make business pay to prevent polluting our air and water so the costs are passed to their customers, that not only makes more sense than allowing them to pollute and making taxpayers pay to clean it up, while others pay with their health or loss of income, it supports the Tea Party principles of free market and smaller government.

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