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Senate finishes campaign finance bill, first piece of ethics compromise

The Florida Senate completed its campaign finance bill Wednesday as part of a sweeping compromise with the House that will send the campaign finance and ethics bills to the governor today.

The Senate voted unanimously for the campaign finance rewrite. That bill, and the ethics bill up for a vote in the House, are top priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who have been shamed by ethics and elections year excesses that gave lawmakers a black eye. 

The package eliminates the Committees of Continuing Existence and creates powerful new political committees that can accept unlimited amounts of campaign contributions. The measure also raises some campaign finance limits from $500 in current law to $3,000 for statewide candidates, and to $1,000 for legislators and all other candidates.

Proponents hailed the accelerated reporting requirements in the bill that will require statewide candidates and their political committees to report daily in the last 10 days before a campaign. Other campaigns will have less aggressive reporting rules.

"You’re not going to be able to take money out of politcs," said Sen. Jack Latvala, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. The trend of decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed unlimited contributions to go to campaigns as a free speech right.

"So the best we’re going to be able to do in the long run is just to provide the transparency to go with that: to have good reprting, to close the loopholes,'' he said. "It’s unprecedented to have daily reporting in the days leading up to an election, when all the monkey shines go on."

Latvala said that raising the contribution limits, which were first put in place in 1992, are "sort of keeping up with inflation.’’ He noted that the House originally proposed unlimited campaign contributions so the compromise is "much better than where the House started…I just thought that was uncalled for so we cut a good deal to bring these bills home.”

Both the campaign finance bill and the ethics bill leave room that critics say are major loopholes. Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, tried and failed to amend the bill to limit contributions to $25,000 from corporations and political committees. 

"The execeptions we have right now are big enough to drive a freight train through,'' he said.  

But, for legislators who must abide by the new rules, they commended the proposals as major accomplishments. 

As the debate began, Weatherford tweeted, “today is meet me halfway day.” 

Here are some of the provisions:

* Raises campaign finance limits for statewide candidates to $3,000 for statewide candiates and supreme court judges, and to $1,000 for legislators and everyone else.  

* Requires additional and accelerated reporting for statewide candidates, their political committees and electioneering and commucations organizations that are statewide – estimated at about 25 to 28 each election year. 

* Allows a successful state candidate to retain up to $20,000 in campaign funds, for the same office, for re-election.

 * Removes the requirement for petition candidates to repay the 1 percent assessment before disposing of surplus funds.

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