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Senate committee rejects raising campaign contribution cap

The Florida Senate sent a message to the Florida House Tuesday that it will gladly eliminate political slush funds but it won't raise campaign finance limits to do it.

The Senate Rules Committee passed its version of the House priority, a rewrite of the state’s campaign finance laws, but only after stripping out a provision that would have raised the campaign finance limits from $500 per election to a tiered system up to $3000 per election for statewide candidates.

The committee was the last stop for SB 1382 and the amendments added to the bill by its sponsor, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, were clearly intended to influence the Senate’s bargaining position with the House. The position also bows to Gov. Rick Scott, who repeated his opposition to raising the cap on campaign contributions in Miami on Tuesday.

"No one’s explained to me why they want to do it. That’s the first thing,'' Scott told reporters. "I want to keep as many people involved in campaigns as possible....No one’s giving me a rationale."

The House passed HB 569 with a 75-39 vote along mostly party lines on March 22. It is a top priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford and it is intended to end the abuse of political committees known as Committees of Continuous Existence, or CCEs, by legislators who raise unlimited funds, write checks to other candidates and finance personal entertainment, travel, meals and other lavish expenses.

Former Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, who was slated to succeed Weatherford as House speaker in 2016 was voted out of office because of perceived abuses of his CCE. 

But the House bill uses the elimination of CCEs to usher in additional changes that are not intended to provide political advantage to House Republicans, Latvala said.

Among them: the House raises the contribution limits for candidates for statewide office from $500 per election to $5,000 for raise the contribution limits for all other candidates from $500 to $3,000.

"Getting rid of CCEs is really a guise for getting rid of finance limits,'' he told the Herald/Times.

Both the House and Senate bill accelerate the pace at which candidates must report their campaign contributions as election day approaches -- a provision that is not very popular with lawmakers.

The House bill also repeals a reporting exemption for members of associations and unions who donate to the associations’ or unions’ political committees in small but frequent amounts. 

Under current law, unions and members of associations that collect dues from their members to contribute to their political committees in small but frequent amounts are exempt from the state reporting requirements. The House bill repeals that provision and Latvala believes it is a targeted attempt to increase the paperwork and costs for unions and goes too far. 

“Behind all the rhetoric, one of the goals of the House in changing from CCEs is to abandon the ability for them to do that,’’ he said. “There are 600 CCEs and 300 of them are membership organizations.’’

The Senate bill allows members of dues-paying organizations to continue to may payments to political committees but rather than being completely exempt from the reporting requirement, must report at least once a year.

The House bill also allows incumbents to retain $50,000 of excess campaign funds for their next campaign for the same office. The Senate bill, by contrast, lowers that amount to what Latvala called “a modest” $20,000.

Elections watchdog groups commended the Senate for lower the campaign contribution cap but said that allowing candidates to rollover $20,000 was incumbency protection they couldn’t support.

That prompted a tongue-lashing from Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, a former state Senate president who ushered in ban on legislators accepting gifts from lobbyists when he was in office.

He suggested that inflation has eroded the value of a $500 campaign contribution limit that was first adopted into Florida law in 1992. The result, he said, is that unlimited checks, coming into campaigns indirectly from political committees and parties, known as “soft money,”  dwarfs the amount of money raised in campaigns by candidates, known as “hard money.”

“How do you stand before us and credibly argue that hasn’t lost tremendous purchasing power over time,’’ Lee asked Brad Ashwell of Common Cause of Florida.

Ashwell replied that research shows that campaign finance limits work to limit the influence of money particularly in primaries.

Lee said he would like to see that research and remained skeptical. “You just are losing all credibility when your recommendations don’t match up with the realities of campaigns,’’ he said.