No wonder it takes a racketeering investigation, dozens of arrests and the resignation of the lieutenant governor for the Legislature to get serious about banning Internet sweepstakes cafes. The chairman of the Senate gaming committee and other key lawmakers have been relying on a private plane owned by a lobbyist for Internet cafes to get back and forth to Tallahassee. Who wants to vote against a lobbyist's client and risk their ride home?
Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, acknowledges he regularly travels on "Air Ramba,'' named after David Ramba, a prominent lobbyist and fundraiser whose company owns two private planes. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale are among other lawmakers who have traveled on Ramba's planes. It's all legal, because the lawmakers say they pay market rates.
That doesn't make it right. There is at least the appearance of a conflict of interest, and it reinforces the coziness between lawmakers and lobbyists. If lawmakers are paying market rates to commute to Tallahassee, surely they can find private planes that are not owned by lobbyists.
Running a shuttle service for lawmakers probably isn't enough to protect the Internet cafes following news of the corruption investigation into cafes owned Allied Veterans. The House is poised to vote to ban the cafes this week. Richter's committee voted unanimously Monday to do the same after he joked with a southwest Florida resident who came to speak.
"It's not easy to get here from Naples, is it?" Richter said, drawing laughs.
It's not funny. There is a reason lobbyists own private planes that they make available to legislators — and it's not the market rate for the flights.