Days before the Florida Legislature convenes for its annual 60-day session, state lawmakers already are busy and shifting into overdrive — raising money from special interests, that is.

In what has become an annual rite, most state legislators are in an all-out fundraising binge, collecting as many checks from special interest groups as possible before the legislative session formally starts on March 3.

That’s because House and Senate rules prohibit lawmakers from raising money during the session, in an effort to eliminate the appearance of votes being cast as a quid pro quo for checks from various interest groups affected by legislation.

In response, the special interest groups have turned to using the week before the session as their best chance to influence lawmakers.

Former state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said that, within the shadow of the towering Capitol building, lobbyists pack bars and restaurants on nearby Adams Street at this time of year, passing checks to seemingly anyone they think can help them get bills passed — especially on the day before the session starts.

“It is like a New York City ticker tape parade, but instead of confetti flying, there are envelopes with checks,” Bennett said.

Former State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a New College of Florida political science professor, said the week before the Legislature meets is “just plain awful” because of the sheer amount of money that trades hands at local bars and clubs. Fitzgerald said he told one lobbyist while he was in office that he would not support the desired legislation during the session, yet still received a check in the apparent hope he would change his mind.

The practice is not confined to Tallahassee. Back in their home districts, legislators hit the fundraiser circuit just as hard during the week before session.

On Tuesday night, for instance, a Sarasota rum distiller hosted a fundraiser for state Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, who is sponsoring a bill that would allow the firm to sell more of its products.

“It’s the only time we can do it,” Steube said of the fundraising blitz. “I can’t raise any money again until May.”

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