(Photo: SXC.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Here’s a recession-proof job that your college career counselor probably never told you about:

Florida lobbyist.

The state’s economy is in the pits, poverty indicators are rising, strip malls remain rife with empty storefronts, but the trough in Tallahassee is filled to overflowing.

Year-end reports are in, and they show that lobbyists spent $127 million to influence the Florida Legislature last year. That’s a record. The spending by more than 2,500 companies, trade associations, unions and local governments easily surpassed the whopping $116 million they shelled out in 2010.

The biggest spender was AT&T, which spent nearly $1.7 million last year, reported the Orlando Sentinel, which listed the top 100 spenders.

Other high rollers were casino companies trying to build gaming resorts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Malaysian-based Genting spent $645,000 through two entities, and Las Vegas Sands laid out $551,000. Of course, their opponents, including the Seminole Tribe, Disney and the Florida Chamber, spent a boatload to stop them: more than $800,000.

The casino operators’ bets didn’t pay off; the gambling bill died in a House committee this month.

Still, as the Orlando Sentinel‘s state capital reporter, Aaron Deslatte, put it: “It is becoming more obvious every year that there is a real correlation between interest groups with big bank accounts, their hiring of high-priced lobbyists with connections and expertise, and the policies that come out of Tallahassee.”

Deslatte notes that AT&T succeeded last year in winning its long battle to deregulate land-line telephones. U.S. Sugar ($907,000) and Florida Crystals ($570,000) are intent on an alternative-energy bill that would provide tax credits for biofuel.

Boca Raton’s GEO Group spent $645,000 to push for more privately run prisons. A bill died in a dramatic 21-19 vote in the Senate on Feb. 14, but Gov. Rick Scott says he’ll try to forge ahead with prison privatization on his own.

“Lobbyists have said their services were in greater demand because a new governor and a more-dominant GOP majority were in control last year — and 2011 turned out to be a banner year for interest groups trying to get growth-management controls repealed, union protections weakened and more limitations on lawsuits,” Deslatte wrote.

Everyone knows why deep-pocketed interests are spending money on Tallahassee insiders. Money equals influence. It’s how the system works.

But you wonder: How is the average citizen — or any large group of poorer citizens — supposed to be heard when the laws are made?