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BY Robert Perez
by Robert Perez on 8/6/00.

Florida's trial lawyers and the state's business lobby plan to pump millions of dollars into this year's state campaigns, with each side hoping to have a say in what limits the Legislature sets on lawsuits.

At stake are reforms the Republican-controlled Legislature passed in 1999 that set limits on product damage awards and reduced liabilities for certain industries, such as car-rental companies.

Associated Industries of Florida, a business lobby with 10,000 members, supports the limits. The Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers opposes them.

The fight will spill over into a record number of political campaigns for state House and Senate seats this election year.

One state House member, who has supported limits on liability suits, thinks the trial lawyers will try to make an example of him.

Lee Constantine, who is hoping to win outgoing Senate President Toni Jennings ' seat, thinks the state's trial lawyers recruited his Republican opponent, Kevin Cannon, who lists his profession as lawyer/pharmacist.

"The trial lawyers feel if they can beat a well-known, effective Republican with an unknown, it will send shivers up the spines of every Republican legislator in the state," he said.

But Scott Carruthers, executive director of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, says his group did not recruit Cannon. Still, Constantine's race is one his group will focus on, Carruthers said.

"We'll look into his voting record," he said. "We'll look into whether he's voted to support his constituents or special interest. Some of his votes raise questions.

"He's got some explaining to do on how [voting for liability limits] helps working families instead of billionaires like Wayne Huizenga."

Another local candidate, who is running for the state House, got a visit from a lobbyist within a week of opening his account.

Larry Strickler, a Republican running for House District 37, said he agreed to meet with the lobbyist from the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers to discuss his position on civil-justice reform.

"I was not surprised that a lobbyist asked me to meet with him," said Strickler, a former Seminole County School Board member. "I was surprised when six trial attorneys joined us at the table."

Strickler's Republican opponent is David Simmons, an Orlando trial lawyer.

Not to be outdone, groups that favor reform are trying to influence campaigns as well. Citizens for a Sound Economy, a national group that supports civil-justice reform, is asking candidates to sign a pledge not to undo reforms passed by the Legislature in 1999.

What's more, one of its own is running for state office.

Republican James Kallinger, a member of the Florida Citizens for a Sound
Economy, is running in House District 35. Kallinger, a Winter Park contractor, isn't just any member. He was the group's 1999 activist of the year.

Florida Business United, the political action committee for Associated Industries, will contribute up to $8 million to state campaigns this year, said Jon Shebel, president of Associated Industries.

That money will go to candidates who support liability limits -- also known as civil-justice reform -- and other issues important to the business community, he said.

Later this month, officials with Associated Industries will meet and identify which candidates its 10,000 members should support, Shebel said.

"And we will identify those who are trial lawyers' candidates," he added.

A soft-money campaign also is in the works. Such campaigns, which don't contribute directly to a candidate but can still influence a race, will be funded through a separate organization, Shebel said.

The Alliance for Florida's Economy expects to collect about $3 million for what Shebel openly calls a "stealth campaign."

"A lot of that is to thwart what the trial lawyers will do," he said.

The amount of money that could be contributed to state campaigns this year would dwarf what has been given before.

An Orlando Sentinel analysis of campaign-finance records showed major business groups leading the civil-justice reform effort contributed $4.25 million to the state GOP in the 1998 elections.

Carruthers would not say how much money trial lawyers will contribute to state races this year, but in 1998 that figure was about $1.5 million. Most went to Democrats.

"Consumers have gotten the short end of the stick," Carruthers said. "It's not about reform; it's relief for special interests."

But business groups counter that lawyers simply want to protect a lucrative source of income that comes from legal fees in liability cases. What's certain is that those business groups won't give up the ground they've gained without a fight.

Jon Mills, dean of the University of Florida's law school, said big-money contributions are nothing new in state politics. The former House speaker, who left the House in 1988, said the number of open seats may be raising the stakes and making the process more obvious.

"Big money has been involved in politics for so long most people already know about that. Soft money is everywhere, and everyone's been decrying it," he said. "It's been there before, but it's more blatant than before. It's almost like they're proud of it."

COLUMN: Election 2000