Florida House leaders unveiled what they believe will be behavior-changing campaign finance reform Wednesday, phasing out candidate-controlled political committees and ushering in stricter reporting deadlines, more contribution accountability and campaign contribution caps of $10,000 per election.
“It’s a way to start the conversation,’’ said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has made reforming what he considers a “messed up” campaign finance system a top priority. “We are keeping the baby and throwing out the bath water.’’
The most dramatic proposal of the 47-page bill filed by House Rules Chairman Rob Schenck is targeting the elimination of nearly 700 Committees of Continuing Existence, political committees that can collect unlimited campaign checks but may not expressly advocate for candidates. The CCEs have been increasingly used as personal slush funds by candidates who can legally spend the unrestricted money on travel, entertainment and meals as well as steer money to other candidates and causes.
The bill requires all CCEs to be shut down by Nov. 1, giving time for organizers to allow them to become traditional political committees. Traditional political committees will remain in law to be used to advocate for a candidate or an issue and would be allowed to accept unlimited contributions from donors.
The proposal also raises the 20-year-old cap on campaign contributions from $500 to $10,000 per election, and from $1,000 to $20,000 per election cycle. See chart here: Download House Campaign Finance
Weatherford called the $500 limit "archaic" and "the second lowest in the country" and said that while he would prefer less money streaming into the campaign finance system, the U.S. Supreme Court has opened the spigot by deeming campaign cash protected speech.
"We think that everyone has to kind of get over the five stages of grief for those who hate the amount of resources that go into politics,'' he told a gathering of journalists at the Associated Press Legislative Planning Session on Wednesday. "I don’t like it either. But we have numerous rulings from the Supreme Court and we can’t change that. So given those confines, there are decisions we have to make about how we allow money to be spent in politics."
Ethics advocates such as Integrity Florida had urged lawmakers to consider eliminating all caps on campaign contributions in exchange for immediate 24-hour disclosure. The House bill stops short of immediate disclosure but asks the Division of Elections to prepare a report by Dec. 1 that looks into the cost and possibility of moving to a 24-hour disclosure system in Florida.
Under the bill, HB 569, candidates for state offices would be required to file weekly campaign finance reports after they qualify for office and, during the last 10 days of the general election cycle, they would be required to provide 24-hour reporting.
The House bill also includes new limits on how candidates use their surplus funds after an election, allowing them to keep up to $100,000 for the next election as long as it is for the same office, or dispose of the money by returning it to donors or giving to charitable causes.
The bill is expected to face resistance from legislators, who want to retain the current CCE system, and political consultants who have profited off it.
Senate leaders of both parties warned Wednesday that eliminating CCEs could concentrate power in the parties and weaken the ability of challengers to unseat incumbents. But those potential opponents made their remarks before they had seen the House proposal.
“I’d rather target the abuses, solve the abuses, than I would to take drastic action like that,’’ said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, at the AP conference.
Latvala was chosen by Senate President Don Gaetz to head up the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee that is ushering through that chamber's ethics reform bill and is expected to also propose a campaign finance reform plan later in February.
Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith agreed with Latvala and said they would prefer to crack down on the abuses rather than eliminate CCEs.
“There have been abuses with CCEs, I’m not going to say they haven’t been,’’ Smith said. “But when you go after one problem you create another problem.”
Weatherford, however, insists that his proposal allow candidates to continue to raise unlimited funds and steer it to other candidates and causes but do it with a measure of accountability that does not now exist.
“The idea of having a CCE has come and gone,’’ Wetherford told reporters. “There are other ways that people can participate in the process than creating an entity that has no real purpose to the campaign aside from subsidizing a lifestyle and writing a very small check to the campaign.”
Weatherford commended an Integrity Florida report that found that 75 percent of every dollar spent on campaigns in Florida circumvented existing campaign finance limits and was poured into no-limit political committees.
Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he supports the goal of the reforms but agreed there will be considerable debate over CCEs and whether they decide to “mend it or end it.”
“At the very least people shouldn’t be able to subsidize a filet mignon lifestyle out of a Committee of Continuous Existence that is set up and legally established so we can support campaigns and causes,’’ he said.