This blog entry was posted on April 20, 2005.

Sen. Rick Santorum's "culture of death/culture of cash" tour of Florida last month is the gift that just keeps on giving.

As our colleague John Baer first told us last week, Pa. junior GOP senator mugged for the TV cameras outside a dying Terri Schiavo's hospice on his late March tour of the Sunshine State and cancelled a Social Security town hall meeting "out of respect" -- but went ahead with a series of political fundraisers aimed at raking on $250,000 for his 2006 campaign.

What's more, Santorum breezed through the state on a corporate jet provided by Wal-Mart. Attytood told you how Santorum also raised $10G from Wal-Mart's PAC and has pushed most of the mega-retailer's D.C. interests -- paying less overtime, protection from lawsuits, and freedom from the inheritance tax, among other things.

But what wasn't reported -- until now -- is that Santorum is also carrying water on his political tray from yet another big-bucks donor behind that Florida jaunt: Outback Steakhouses.

The Web site Political Money Line has now begun to scrutinize the $104,500 that Santorum has reported receiving from Florida individuals and PACs so far in 2005. It writes (4th item -- scroll down):

Tampa itemized donors on 3/31 over $6,000 including $3,000 from the PAC of Outback Steakhouse. These may have come from a 3/30 luncheon in Tampa hosted by Outback according to news reports. The PAC had already given $5,000 in January.

Without a lot of fanfare, the ubiquitous steakhouse chain with the bouncy Australian theme and its famed "Bloomin Onion" has become a political playa -- almost all on the GOP side. Check out this 2004 article from the St. Petersburg Times:

...Outback's 2,700 steakhouse managers and joint-venture partners are breaking bread with local government officials, tracking legislation and quietly donating $1.6-million of their own pay to build one of the country's biggest corporate PACs. Bigger than Boeing's, according to Bigger than Halliburton's...

Through Oct. 13 of the current election cycle, Republicans took home 98 percent of the $452,250 that Outback's PAC donated to party committees, 97 percent of the $453,551 it spent on national, state and local candidates, and 100 percent of the $52,000 it gave to the so-called leadership PACs of top legislators. Those legislators, such as U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, use the leadership PACs to solidify support within their party by contributing to favored candidates.

Some observers assume the company is pursuing a right-wing social agenda because many of the pro-business candidates it supports are social conservatives. But that's not true, Kadow said; if anything, Outback executives lean libertarian. "The only purpose of our political activity is to protect the economic viability of the restaurant industry," he said.

No issue is more important to the economic viability of the restaurant industry, or so it argues, than the minimum wage. Lost in all the debate over raising the national minimum wage is that the rules for restaurant staff who collect tips are different than those for other wage-earners.

Right now, the federal minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers is just $2.13 an hour (although employers have to make up the difference if workers' tips don't bring them above the $5.15 an hour national standard).

But some municipalities and states are now looking to increase that on their own. Last fall, despite an aggressive lobbying campaign by Outback, Florida voters approved a hike in that state's minimum wage for restaurant staff, although there's already an effort to repeal it. Other states or cities could do the same.

Last October, the St. Petersburg paper reported (Nexis - no link) on Outback's lobbying efforts in New Mexico and elsewhere.

If municipal-level minimum wage laws were to catch on - only Santa Fe, San Francisco, Madison, Wis., and Washington, D.C., have minimum wage laws that cover private-sector workers - restaurant chains such as Outback could suffer.

In early March, not long after Santorum received the $5,000 Outback PAC contribution and less than four weeks before the fundraiser the company hosted in Tampa, the Pa. senator introduced his own minimum wage amendment. It would have increased the overall minimum wage by a $1, but that was less than the Democratic plan ($2 an hour) and had some little noticed, pro-business provisions.

One of them: Republicans also proposed provisions restricting the ability of states to raise the minimum wage for restaurant employees...

That's right: the main course on the Outback's legislative menu.

This morning, Attytood spoke with Santorum's chief campaign advisor, John Brabender. He said the important aspect of Santorum's amendment -- which was defeated but could well surface again -- was that the senator wanted to increase the minimum wage, but "he wants to make sure things are done the right way, and may sure that small businesses aren't socked by a minimum wage increase."

Brabender said he wasn't aware whether Outback had lobbied Santorum in addition to the fundraiser. But he noted that one of the senator's Democratic 2006 rivals, state treasurer Robert Casey Jr., takes donations from trial lawyers and opposes malpractice caps -- i.e., donors' and politicians' interests frequently intersect. Santorum listens to all sides, he argued, "and ultimately makes up his mind what's best for the people of Pennsylvania."

Perhaps -- unless you're a single mom who's waiting on tables trying to scrape by, while Outback shareholders are enjoying their $156 million profit from last year.

She might call it a bloomin' disgrace.