February 28, 2013

Defeated state rep spends unused campaign cash to pay girlfriend

Days after he lost his bid for re-election last fall, former Rep. Peter Nehr of Palm Harbor used leftover campaign money to pay his live-in girlfriend $22,000 for "consulting," records show.

Nehr made three post-election payments to girlfriend Kim Marie, a 47-year-old acupuncturist, listing them as "consulting, editing and fundraising" expenses on his campaign expenditure report.

The report lists her as living at a fictitious address in Palm Harbor, "2528 Glory Drive." Property, voting and other state records list Nehr and Marie as both living in a Palm Harbor townhome on Gloriosa Drive, which she owns.

Is this a violation of state law? Current law allows candidates to spend money after the election on thank you advertisements, for previous financial obligations and expenses needed to shut down campaign operations. Violations are subject to fines from the Florida Elections Commission.

The ethics revisions moving through the Florida and the Senate attempt to tackle the use of slush funds for CCEs and don't address this issue. More from Steve Bousquet here. 

February 27, 2013

Does Florida need the Voting Rights Act? The experts are divided

As a skeptical U.S. Supreme Court raised doubts about a central provision of the federal Voting Rights Act on Wednesday, the law’s defenders said the 2012 election provided a vivid example for why it was needed to protect Florida from voter suppression.

“Look at the performance of our governor and Legislature in the last election,’’ says Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida whose parent organization has joined in the lawsuit to retain the law. “They are walking advertisements for why we need the Voting Rights Act.”

After the Legislature passed a sweeping elections bill in 2011, the act’s provisions required the state to get federal approval from either a federal trial court or the Justice Department before the law could take effect in Monroe, Hillsborough, Hardee, Hendry and Collier counties.

In addition to seeking the review, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi challenged the act’s constitutionality. Former Secretary of State Kurt Browning called the provisions of the act an “arbitrary and irrational coverage formula based on data from 40 years ago that takes no account of current conditions.”

The five Florida counties have been subject to the pre-clearance requirement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act protections since 1975 because of a history of discrimination against language minorities. Monroe County, for example, failed to print ballots in Spanish even though the Spanish-speaking population was large enough to warrant its own ballot. Story here.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/02/27/3257775_florida-advocates-say-2012-proved.html#storylink=addthis#storylink=cpy

February 13, 2013

Voting changes win bipartisan support in House panel

Democrats joined with Republicans Wednesday in a bipartisan vote in support of four changes to Florida's voting laws prompted by the chaos and long lines last fall. The House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee passed the bill on a 12-0 vote.

Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, the sponsor, called the bill a "collaborative effort to address the difficult experiences by many voters in the 2012 election."

The changes, broadly supported by voters, election supervisors, Gov. Rick Scott and the state elections division, would undo two of the most controversial changes in a Republican-backed rewrite of the election laws two years ago. The bill would require early voting on a minimum of eight days and a maximum of 14 days with optional early voting on the Sunday before Election Day. It also would expand early voting locations to include county courthouses, fairgrounds, convention centers and civic centers.

Under the bill, a county could offer as little as 48 hours of early voting (six hours for eight days) but no Democrat on the panel raised an objection to the provision. The maximum early voting hours would increase from the current 96 to 168 hours, or 12 hours a day over a 14-day period.

The bill (PCB EES 13-01) also would limit ballot summaries to 75 words for constitutional amendments proposed by the Legislature.

Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, the ranking minority member on the panel, said more work is needed to prevent voters from being disenfranchised. "There's a firm realization that Florida needs more voting days. We need more polling locations and they need to be properly staffed and properly equipped," Cruz said. "I really hope we can work toward a better solution."

Among those voting for the bill was Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, sponsor of the 2011 changes that triggered a flurry of lawsuits and Democratic complaints of voter suppression that are now viewed with disfavor even by Republicans. "I don't think any of us would want to inhibit a person from being able to participate," Baxley said. 

In a deal cut between the two parties to promote a spirit of bipartisan cooperation, Democrats withdrew nine amendments, including allowing early voting at community colleges, making Election Day a paid holiday and requiring early voting on the Sunday before Election Day. The amendment sponsors, Reps. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation and Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said they would propose them later when the bill gets to the House floor during the regular spring session.

-- Steve Bousquet


February 08, 2013

Fasano to shutter his political committee, give cash to charity

TALLAHASSEE — As a show of support to campaign finance reform efforts in the Legislature, Rep. Mike Fasano announced Friday that he’s disbanding his political committee and will donate the unspent campaign cash to charity.

“With the elections reforms that are being talked about, there is no longer a need for these committees,” said Fasano, R-New Port Richey. “I’d ask that anyone disbanding their (committees) disburse the funds to non profits.”

Fasano said he was backing House Speaker Will Weatherford, who in November announced he was making the elimination of the committees part of his ethics and campaign finance reform.

Too much of the money raised by these committees are spent on things other than political campaigns, Weatherford has said, making them susceptible to abuse.

On Friday, Fasano faxed a letter to the Florida Division of Elections giving notice that he was pulling the plug on his Floridians for Principled Government, a Committee of Continuous Existence, or CCE, that he created in 2003.

Since it formed, it has raised $644,000 in contributions and spent $403,000. Its last expenditure was on Oct. 30 for $2,500 to the Florida Conservative Action Committee, which is based in West Palm Beach.

Fasano said he was donating the money in the following ways:

• $83,000 to The Volunteer Way, a meals-on-wheels non-profit, for the purchase of a refrigerator truck to deliver perishable food.

• $10,000 to the Good Samaritan Health Clinic to pay the salary of a nurse practitioner who can provide expanded health services in Pasco.

• $10,000 to help finance a drug monitoring program data base for the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Foundation.

• $2,000 to SmileFaith Dental Care, which provides dental care to those who can’t afford it.

Fasano said he didn’t think about shuttering his committee until Weatherford’s announcement in November. Under state law, candidates can steer that money to political parties, to charity or return it to donors. They also can steer money to their state office accounts or give the money to the state treasury.

January 16, 2013

Are you ready for unlimited campaign donations to political committees?

Florida’s campaign finance system is so riddled with holes that a state ethics watchdog group will urge lawmakers Wednesday to open the spigot and let an unlimited amount of campaign cash gush into campaign coffers.

Integrity Florida, a non-profit, independent ethics advocacy organization, will tell the Houses Ethics and Elections Committee that the state should allow no-limits campaign finance in exchange for public disclosure of all donors.

Disclosure would be made within 24 hours of every check deposited to any state or local campaign account and every expenditure paid. The group also wants the elimination of powerful political slush funds that whitewash funds and shield donors, known as Committees of Continuous Existence.

“There is no evidence that caps on contributions are effective,’’ said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida. “The money is going to find its way into the system. It is broken in every possible way.”

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has made eliminating CCEs a political priority, told the Herald/Times that he is “open to considering” the removal of contribution limits.

“We already have a system that allows for unlimited money,’’ he said. Story here. 

January 15, 2013

House panel gets an earful on how to fix 2012 voting problems

Ten Florida election supervisors testified before a House subcommittee Tuesday and largely repeated themes they emphasized to a Senate panel Monday. They want shorter ballots, a return to a maximum of 14 days of early voting and more flexibility in picking early voting sites.

The supervisors testified before the House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton. They also said they want a return to early voting on the Sunday right before an election (which was eliminated when the Legislature rewrote the election code in 2011).

But a recurring theme was the unprecedented length of the 2012 ballot, with 11 proposed constitutional amendments, several of them published in full on orders of lawmakers. "They (voters) just said, 'This ballot is too long,'" said Escambia County Supervisor of Elections David Stafford. "It's written in language that a lawyer can't understand."

Lee County's Sharon Harrington said the Legislature has imposed too many restrictions on early voting sites. Miami-Dade's Penelope Townsley stressed the need for more early voting sites, a return to up to 14 days of early voting and limiting all ballot questions to a 75-word summary, the same as citizen-sponsored ballot initiatives.

Seminole County's Mike Ertel struck an upbeat tone, noting that some states don't allow early voting: "Don't let your friends in other states try to shame you into thinking that you haven't done enough for the voters."

One member of the House committee is Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, sponsor of the 2011 law that lawmakers are now trying to fix. "You don't have to restore my confidence. It's already there," Baxley said during the five-hour hearing.

-- Steve Bousquet

January 14, 2013

Rubio, Obama, Diaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen, Jeb -- oh my! Everyone's talking immigration now

The fiscal cliff debate is on hold. Now comes the demographic cliff debate: Immigration.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush hosted a Friday powwow about immigration reform. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and President Obama’s administration leaked details of their plans over the weekend that would give varying degrees of amnesty to those illegally in the country.

And on Monday in Doral, Miami U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen held a forum to gather ideas and, in Diaz-Balart’s words, give them “ammunition” to call on their colleagues to reform immigration.

With the exception of Obama, all are from Florida and are Republicans. Their party’s hard-line immigration stances helped drive Hispanics, the state and nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, to the Democratic Party this last election. Republicans don’t want a repeat in two years.

“Both parties have used immigration as a political wedge issue,” Diaz-Balart said. “The Democrats never wanted to get it done. They wanted to have it as a political issue. It worked very well for them.”

But, Diaz-Balart said, his party isn’t without fault.

“Republicans didn’t want to get it done — leadership — they wanted it as a wedge issue. It has worked poorly for them,” he said.

Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen say this is the year that Congress needs to pass immigration reform. A major fault-line: Whether to give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship or a pathway to residency.

Still, this is the time, Diaz-Balart said because it’s not an election year. So there’s less chance for hyper-partisan politics, Diaz-Balart said. It’s also a new Congress. And Republicans, who blocked major congressional immigration legislation in 2010 and 2006, might be more willing to vote for immigration-reform plans as the lessons of 2012’s elections are still fresh.

More here

January 12, 2013

Three out of four $$ this election cycle went to no-limits committee accounts

Florida’s sputtering economy did not stop interest groups and donors from spending $306 million this election cycle on state political campaigns, according to final election year tallies released Friday.

The number is lower than the $550 million reported in the 2010 election cycle and does not include the massive amount of federal cash spent in the presidential race. But it points to a new trend: more dollars are going to campaign committees rather than individual candidates.

Three out of every four dollars were unlimited checks to political committees, while the rest went into the campaign accounts of individuals, which are capped at $500 a check.

The shift is a sign that Florida’s $500 limit is outdated and dysfunctional — and ripe for reform, said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, which did the analysis of the campaign finance data released by the Florida Division of Elections.

“Candidate accounts have become nearly irrelevant,’’ said Krassner. The current system allows corporations to write unlimited checks to political committees with loose affiliations to candidates but require them to give no more than $1000 to individual candidates for both the primary and general election. The result is, he said, “the public cannot easy follow the money.’’

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has called for an overhaul of the state’s campaign finance reforms said Friday the numbers prove his point that the political committees – known as Committees of Continuous Existence, or CCEs – have gotten out of hand. Story here.

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January 10, 2013

Election supervisors want up to 14 early voting days

Florida's county election supervisors will be asking the Legislature for a handful of voting-law changes as a result of the turmoil that surrounded the 2012 election.

In a concise, one-page summary of their legislative priorities, the supervisors "strongly urge" the Legislature to do three things:

* Require that the Legislature comply with the 75-word ballot summary requirement that is required for citizen-led ballot initiatives (Lawmakers exempted themselves from that requirement years ago, and ordered the full text of several amendments to be on the November ballot, a leading contributor to long lines at polling places).

* Require eight days of early voting in primary and general elections "with the option for supervisors to provide additional days not to exceed 14 days." (The Republican-led Legislature voted in 2011, with Democrats opposed, to reduce early voting from 14 days to eight).

* Give election supervisors the leeway to select more early voting sites (the Legislature limits them to election offices, city halls and libraries).

Next week, 10 supervisors of election will testify before legislative committees. The Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, chaired by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has scheduled a five-hour hearing Monday with no other hearings at the same time, to give all senators the chance to attend.

-- Steve Bousquet

December 10, 2012

Crist gave to Obama, Nelson and Patrick Murphy

From the News Service of Florida:

Former Gov. Charlie Crist and his wife, Carole, contributed $13,000 to Democratic candidates during the 2012 election cycle, including contributions to President Obama and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, state and federal records show.

Crist, a former Republican who became an independent in 2010, drew national headlines when he signed papers Friday night at the White House to become a registered Democrat. The Crists combined to contribute $2,500 to Obama's successful campaign against Republican Mitt Romney and $1,500 to Nelson's successful re-election bid against Republican Connie Mack, the records show.

The Crists sent the largest amount --- $7,000 --- to Democrat Patrick Murphy, who unseated Republican Congressman Allen West in a south Florida district. Charlie Crist also contributed $1,000 to Democrat Lois Frankel, who defeated Republican Adam Hasner in another south Florida congressional district. The former governor also contributed $500 to Democrat Al Lawson, who lost a north Florida congressional race to incumbent Republican Steve Southerland, and $500 to former Democratic lawmaker Dave Aronberg, who was elected state attorney in Palm Beach County. Along with funneling money to Democratic candidates, Charlie Crist also contributed $500 to the merit-retention campaign of Florida Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis, state records show.