More than a dozen high-powered lobbying firms are angling for contracts from the agency that runs Orlando International Airport, which spends more money hiring people to influence federal and state decision-makers than any other local government in Central Florida.
Those competing for the contracts include one firm led by a consultant with close ties to several Greater Orlando Aviation Authority board members. Another is headed by a top fundraiser for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. A third is run by a former state legislator who has been on the authority's payroll for 22 years.
An internal committee will begin evaluating the applications Tuesday. Big money is at stake.
The aviation authority spends $435,500 a year on contract lobbyists. The agency has paid its top lobbyist, Consensus Communications, about $1 million during the past six years.
Airport leaders say lobbying is a vital expense. Lobbyists, they say, help GOAA navigate a complex maze of bureaucracies, from the Florida Legislature and state Department of Transportation to Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Homeland Security and more.
"Things move pretty fast in Washington and Tallahassee. We need somebody on the ground to keep an eye on what's going on and also to be an advocate for us," GOAA Chairman Jeff Fuqua said.
But others find the practice of one government spending public money to lobby another distasteful.
"It's gotten out of control. It simply promotes more government, not less government -- or not necessarily better government," said Dominic Calabro, the president of Florida TaxWatch, a Tallahassee-based think tank financed by businesses. "We're using one group of taxpayers to compete against another group of taxpayers, and the net effect is rising costs and less coordination."
GOAA outspends others
At $435,500 a year, GOAA, which also runs Orlando Executive Airport, pays handsomely for its representation in the state and national capitals.
The Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, by contrast, spends $289,000 a year on lobbying. Orange County government pays its lobbyists $231,000. Lynx, the region's bus agency, spends $192,000.
Airport officials say it is money well spent. As evidence, they point to tens of millions of dollars in grants that their lobbyists have helped snag for GOAA.
During the past five years alone, according to figures provided by the airport, GOAA has won nearly $90 million in competitive grants handed out by the FAA. The grants have helped GOAA pay for improved baggage conveyor belts, new runway-lighting systems, widened taxiways and terminal renovations.
The authority, which raises money largely through fees on items such as plane tickets and parking and through leases with airlines, rental-car companies and other businesses, also won extra money to help pay for repairs after Hurricane Charley in 2004.
"We're constantly looking for where we can get these funds," GOAA spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell said.
The authority has four lobbying firms under contract, including former state Rep. Bob Hartnett, who lobbies on behalf of the authority in Tallahassee and has represented it since 1985.
Consensus leads pack
But the best-paid firm on the payroll is Consensus Communications, a prominent Orlando-based agency that has cultivated strong ties with local leaders.
Consensus co-founders Tre' Evers and John Sowinski have acted as advisers for Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty, who sits on GOAA's seven-member board. Two other board members, Fuqua and Rob Theisen, listed Evers as a personal reference on their applications to the Governor's Office for appointments to the GOAA board.
GOAA initially hired Consensus in 2001 as its lead federal-government lobbyist, giving it a two-year contract that paid $9,000 a month. But the authority has since exercised four one-year extensions and expanded the contract to include state-government lobbying and extra services, such as luring the Airbus A380 super-jumbo jet and working on an international marketing effort.
GOAA now pays Consensus $15,300 a month. It has paid the firm, which also lobbies the federal government for the expressway authority, about $1.05 million during the life of the contract.
Evers said he could not comment on Consensus' performance while it is actively seeking another federal lobbying contract from GOAA. But in its current application before the authority, it cited, among other achievements, winning $5 million to reduce wildlife-versus-plane hazards and $2 million to install an instrument-landing system.
"Our team's experience in Washington, D.C., and insight into the priorities of GOAA make us uniquely qualified to provide federal-representation services," Evers and a trio of co-consultants wrote in their proposal to the airport.
But all of the authority's incumbent lobbyists face some heady competition for the next round of GOAA contracts.
Five teams, some of which consist of multiple firms, are seeking a federal contract from GOAA, while another five have put in for a state job.
The contenders for the state lobbying contract include Tallahassee-based Smith & Ballard, whose namesake, Brian Ballard, was one of the top fundraisers for Crist's 2006 election campaign and a co-chair of Crist's inaugural committee. The would-be federal lobbyists include Akerman Senterfitt, whose partners have included U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.
The rest of the firms are filled with former state legislators, members of Congress and high-level government staffers.
Fuqua said none should be considered a favorite.
"We'll see what happens," he said.