August 23, 2011; Source: Florida Times-Union | This past spring, a lobbyist for a Florida group called Step Up for Students shepherded through the state legislature a bill to enhance a program that awarded $4,100 scholarships to students who want to go to private or religious schools. Signed into law on June 2 by Governor Rick Scott, the bill increased the amount of money corporations can contribute to these scholarships from 75 to 100 percent of their tax liability. (Under the law, the contributions qualify as a dollar-for-dollar tax credit rather than a deduction from taxable income.)

As it turns out, the only nonprofit in Florida that handles this type of scholarship—more than 10,000 were awarded this past year alone—is Step Up for Students. In fact, the organization wrote the bill itself. And as revealed by a series of letters and emails obtained by the Florida Times-Union, Step Up also coached the bill’s nominal sponsor, Rep. Mike Horner (R-Kissimmee), so that he could explain and defend the bill he hadn’t written without embarrassing himself.

In another bit of bill-writing audacity, Step Up even tried to insert a provision that would have given it exclusive access to the list of the 100 companies with the largest corporate tax bills in the state so that the organization could solicit them for donations. That provision was deleted from the bill just before it passed to avoid establishing a precedent of handing over confidential taxpayer information to third parties.

Is there anything wrong with this? The Times-Union said that this is simply the way the game is played, that “most people who troll the halls of the state Capitol already know Tallahassee’s dirty little secret—lobbyists, not elected officials, write many laws.” A spokesperson for Common Cause told the Times-Union that particularly in states with term limits, legislators generally don’t have or don’t develop “the expertise to write their own legislation even with the help of the staff.”

Of course, powerful for-profit companies do the same thing (the T-U pointed to AT&T drafting telecommunications legislation and medical interests writing alternatives on tort reform). Maybe it’s good that nonprofits are developing their own bill-writing expertise or the resources to hire it. A Step Up person did tell the paper, “I mean, we have someone on staff who is very talented, so we try to use that.”

On the other hand, as much as individual students may benefit from being able to go to private schools, public schools do not benefit from the loss of students—or the loss of state funding that occurs when corporations wipe out their state tax bill by giving the money to Step Up’s private-school scholarship program instead. Would a nonprofit lacking access to the resources of powerful private interests like private schools and big corporations be able to match Step Up’s bill-writing acumen? Or is Step Up’s apparent skill at advocacy actually a thin veil for the lobbying capacity of powerful corporate interests?—Rick Cohen