A House plan to eliminate controversial political slush funds and raise the campaign contribution limit in Florida to $10,000 won approval on a bi-partisan first vote Monday.
But the top priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford faces a fight. Senate critics and ethics watchdogs warn that the solution will create new loopholes, allowing the parties to control big checks with no accountability, concentrate power in the hands of incumbents and party officials, and make the system less democratic.
Those criticisms did not dissuade the House Ethics and Elections Subcommittee Monday, however, which passed HB 569 on a 10-2 vote. Democratic Reps. Katie Edwards of Plantation and Mike Clelland of Lake Mary joined Republicans who predicted the bill will result in "dramatic change."
"The bill is simple. It takes Florida's election process and makes it one of the most transparent in the nation and it does do by protecting everyone’s free speech,'' said Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, the sponsor of the measure.
The bill eliminates the controversial Committees of Continuous Existence, the entities that have served as legal political slush funds for public officials. The CCEs can’t be used on campaigns but have evolved to become the method of choice for legislators to pay for meals, travel and entertainment to get around the legislature’s strict gift ban. Under current law, CCEs serve as a way to avoid attempts to follow the money in politics by accepting unlimited checks and then transferring the money to the party or to an Electioneering and Communications Organization, which can then spend it on a campaign.
The House proposal also raises campaign finance limits to $10,000 from the current $500, a level Weatherford has called “archaic” in light of the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which determined that campaign contributions were protected speech and could not be limited.
It also allows the party to contribute as much as $10,000 to a candidate’s committee, up from the current $500, and allows candidates to keep as much as $100,000 in unspent money for the next campaign for the same office.
In exchange for the higher limits, 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, 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.
Schenck and other Republicans on the panel said the goal of the House bill is not to limit the flow of money into the political system but instead to establish new ground rules that will make it easier to track who gets contributions from whom.
"This will be a dramatic change,'' said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. "Gone will be the days where people can hide behind a secretive third party group…This is a tremendous step forward in transparency and accountability to voters."
The committee accepted an amendment by Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, that strikes a provision in the proposal that would have allowed one candidate to give as much as $10,000 to another candidate. But it rejected his attempts to strike the increase in the campaign finance cap and another that would have streamlined reporting requirements for large organizations, such as unions, whose members make frequent but small contributions.
But Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has said he won’t support the House bill and doubts claims that it can be considered real reform.
He said the House bill will increase the arms race of campaign cash into the system, and won't end the shell game because big donors who want to shield their intentions can write big checks to the party which won’t face the same disclosure requirements as candidates and political committees.
"Every candidate can get up to $10,000 per contributor and give an unlimited amount to the party and that leads to a whole new area for money,'' he told the Herald/Times last month. "The last thing we need in this process is more money."
Latvala said the Senate instead will try to rein in CCEs and increase campaign disclosure when it releases its campaign finance proposal early next month.
Weatherford has called CCEs a failed concept and accused Latvala of "political posturing."
Latvala appears to be the only opponent to CCEs but the plan to raise campaign contribution limits has drawn the opposition of campaign watchdogs Common Cause of Florida and the League of Women Voters.
Integrity Florida, an ethics watchdog group which until last week had the support of the First Amendment Foundation as well as the conservative Americans for Prosperity, supports the House bill.
First Amendment Foundation director Barbara Petersen announced her resignation from the Integrity Florida’s board last week. Integrity Florida has called for 24-hour disclosure of all campaign contributions in exchange for unlimited contributions.