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Latvala: House plan can't be called serious reform

Sen. Jack Latvala, the head of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, told the Herald/Times that he can’t support a House plan to eliminate one class of political committees and raise campaign contribution limits to $10,000 per election because it will exacerbate the arms race of money in politics without sufficient reforms.

"If you say you're going to reform the process, then reform the process,'' said Latvala, R-St. Petersburg,  the head of the Senate committee handling ethics and campaign finance reform. “Based on my first blush, it looks like all we’re doing is changing the names of CCEs to political committees.''

Latvala was responding to a bill filed late Wednesday by House leaders that would raise campaign finance limits and eliminate the Committees of Continuing Existence, the political entities that cannot campaign directly for campaigns but can accept unlimited checks and transfer that money to the party and other committees.

"I raised $600,000 this year without breaking a sweat and I gave $150,000 to charity,'' Latvala said. "What would I do with four times that much."

Latvala, whose Senate committee is still developing its own campaign finance reform plan, said he believes the House bill won't end the shell game of money transfers used to shield who gave what money to whom. 

"Every candidate can get up to $10,000 per contributor and give an unlimited amount from the party and that leads to a whole new area for money,'' he said. "The last thing we need in this process is more money."

House Speaker Will Weatherford, who has made campaign finance reform a signature issue of his two-year term, counters that there is already unlimited cash in the system and it's time to accept that U.S. Supreme Court has protected the endless streams of money into politics so the focus should be on making the money more accountable.

"All of my friends that hate the amount of money in politics have to go through the stages of grief that you can’t take it out,'' he told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board on Friday. "…I’m not saying it’s right. I’m saying it’s hard to follow."

He called CCEs a failed concept and accused Latvala of "political posturing."

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. Candidates, who can't use their CCEs for campaigns, can use the funds for entertainment, travel and dining.

"If someone writes me a check for $100,000, I can’t spend that money on campaigns," Weatherford explained. "I can write $500 checks and transfer the money to an ECO or have a nice lifestyle...So what’s Jack’s logic for needing the CCE? We need the middleman? "

He commended the proposal by the ethics advocacy group Integrity Florida, which advocates for removing all limits to campaign contributions in exchange for 24-hour disclosure, but he said, "I'm not sure the state's ready for that."

Instead, Weatherford is proposing increasing reporting to weekly reports after a candidate qualifies for office and 24-hour reporting for state office candidates the last 10 days of the general election.

Latvala said the Senate has recommended that CCEs remain with new restrictions that prohibit them from spending money on travel, entertainment and dining as long as it is intended to benefit a campaign. He said the Senate will also recommend even stricter reporting requirements than the House: every contribution received after a candidate qualifies for election must be deposited within six days and reported within 24-hours of being deposited.

"I'm not saying we need to preserve CCEs and we may shift over to using political committees, but if we do that it will be with the understanding that we're not reforming anything. We're increasing the reporting."

"I raised $600,000 this year without breaking a sweat and gave $150,000 to charity. What would I do with four times that much?"

"I love Jack. He’s a great friend, but I think its political posturing,'' Weatherford told the Times' editorial board. "They know the House is for this and there’s a lot of people who don’t want to see campaign finance laws changed."

Latvala said he supports change, "as long as it's meaningful" and the House bill won't end the "shell game" of money transfers that now take place.

Current law prohibits candidates from giving to other candidates and political committees from giving more than $500 to candidates and other political committees. The House bill will change that, allowing for candidates to give up to $10,000 to other candidates and raising the limit on political committees giving to other political committees from $500 to unlimited amounts. 

"CCEs now transfer money two or three times so candiates can't trace it," Latvala said. "This [the House bill] doesn't change that and it adds a new vehicle -- candidate money." 

For example, he said if someone wants to hide the fact they are contributing to a candidate, they can steer money to three different candidates and have those candidates give money to the favored candidate. 

Dan Krassner of Integrity Florida agrees with elements of the House proposal but said he believes the state will never be able to stop candidates and contributors who want to prevent the public from following the money.

"All campaign finance laws have enormous loopholes and opportunities for bad actors to conceal donors,'' he said.  

He also supports the elimination of CCEs because they have "operate primarily as a money pump'' by raising unlimited funds but are forced to transfer the money to political committees and the party to be spent on campaigns.

"CCEs are slush funds that serve no public purpose other than to conceal money in politics and make it harder for citizens to follow the money,'' he said.

The Senate plan "doesn't go far enough" because it would "keep the slush funds and allow the meals and drinks to flow endlessly as long as conversations are about fundraising or the CCE's mission," Krassner said.

The House proposal, by contrast, he said, "moves towards a disclosure and regulatory structure where political committees would raise and spend and be accountabile for all of their activity."

The House will conduct the first hearing of its bill on Wednesday.