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Rick Scott sues to deny McCollum 'welfare for politicians'

Rick Scott, the deep-pocketed Republican front-runner for governor, sued the state Wednesday in an effort to prevent his personal wealth from helping his primary rival, Attorney General Bill McCollum.


Scott filed suit in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee challenging part of Florida's public campaign financing system known as the "millionaire's amendment." The provision allows traditional candidates such as McCollum to obtain tax dollars to subsidize their campaigns when they are being vastly outspent by independently wealthy candidates like Scott.


Scott must agree to limit his campaign expenditures to $24.9-million in the primary or else the state will give McCollum $1 for every dollar Scott spends over the cap. As Scott inches ever closer to that total, his lawsuit argues that the cap is a violation of his First Amendment rights because it restricts his speech by benefiting his opponents' speech.


"The (U.S.) Supreme Court has concluded that a Legislature cannot enact laws that provide benefits to a candidate's opponents triggered by the candidate's exercise of the right to use funds for campaign speech," Scott's lawsuit says. "The Supreme Court has also consistently concluded that restrictions on a candidate's ability to spend his own funds, or funds raised from others, cannot be justified either by the government's interest in reducing corruption or the appearance of corruption or by the government's interest in equalizing the relative financial resources of candidates."


Scott sued the Secretary of State, a state agency, and the case has political implications beyond the lawsuit itself. It literally could put McCollum, the state's chief legal officer, on the defensive, because the attorney general routinely represents state agencies in court. 


The legal action also highlights how McCollum is seeking help from taxpayers to fortify his campaign at a time when he is calling for fiscal austerity, budget cuts and a two-year freeze on local property tax increases on the campaign trail. 


Scott wants an expedited hearing and a court injunction to block McCollum and the leading Democratic candidate for governor, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, from getting state matching money. The checks are scheduled to start flowing July 23.


Scott's lawsuit comes on the heels of a similar case in Arizona, McCormish v. Bennett, where a trial court ruled that matching funds are a violation of the First Amendment. An appeals court reversed the decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court, without making a ruling in the case, issued an order blocking further disbursements of state matching money to candidates.


McCollum cannot compete with Scott's millions, so his allies have opened up two electioneering groups that can raise and spend unlimited sums to attack Scott for his troubled tenure as CEO of a major hospital chain that paid a $1.7-billion fine for Medicare fraud. Those two groups are the Sunshine State Freedom Fund and the Florida First Initiative.  


"I decided to solicit for the Florida First Initiative to at least have some ways of offsetting the a little bit of the tremendous amount of personal wealth that is being put in here -- far more than I'll ever spend in a campaign for governor, or could," McCollum said on Tuesday (cq). 


Scott's lawsuit names as the defendant Dawn Roberts, the interim Secretary of State whose office oversees elections. Roberts' spokeswoman, Jennifer Davis, said the agency had not yet seen the complaint.


Davis said the Secretary of State is required by law to employ the attorney general as its counsel in lawsuits. But if a conflict of interest arises, the agency can hire outside counsel.


Florida voters added the public campaign system to the state Constitution in 1998. Supporters -- mainly Democrats -- said the taxpayer subsidies would neutralize the influence of special interests and give low-budget candidates a better chance to vie for support, but opponents derided the system as "welfare for politicians" and a waste of scarce tax dollars.


A proposed amendment to the Constitution on the Nov. 2 ballot, advanced by the Republican-controlled Legislature, asks voters to abolish the system permanently.  

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.