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As House and Senate compromise, mega PACs emerge as replacement for CCEs

Political slush funds will get a new name and campaign finance limits will rise for statewide candidates under a Senate campaign finance bill that won unanimous approval by a Senate committee on Monday.

The proposal by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, is intended as a compromise to a House plan that makes similar changes and is a top priority for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Weatherford wants to put an end to 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. 

The Senate bill, SB 1382, abolishes CCEs and raises the contribution limit for candidates for statewide office from $500 to $3000, to $2000 for candidates for the district courts of appeal and leaves the cap at $500 for everyone else. The House bill, HB 569, also ends CCEs but raises the political contribution limits to $10,000. Weatherford said the committee is prepared to lower that amount when it meets on Wednesday.

Despite the changes, several senators on the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee voiced their skepticism that SB 1382 will change much behavior. 

“I guess this is the ‘PC’ bill. It’s politically correct but it doesn’t really change anything in the real world,’’ said Sen Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami. 

Both the House and Senate bills will shift much of the power, including the ability to collect contributions of unlimited amounts, from CCEs to super Political Action Committees. Requirements will be tighter for the kinds of personal expenses the funds can pay for, but the legislator-controlled political committees will also now pay for controversial political ads that CCEs can’t finance.

“Doing away with CCEs and then creating these super political committees, I’m not sure what you’re gaining or losing,’’ said Mark Herron, a Tallahassee lawyer and election law expert.

But Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who ushered in the gift ban from lobbyists to legislators when he was Senate president in 2006, urged legislators to “remember how we got here.” 

“We got here because there were abuses of power in this process because people took advantage of the titles they were lent by the public – in some cases for the express purpose they could monetize that title and be in the lobbying corps,’’ he said. He urged them to focus on “a very narrow set of practical reforms that could hold individuals accountable.” 

The Senate bill increase the number of campaign reports candidates are expected to file from 8 to 21, including weekly reports after a candidate qualifies. The House bill excludes political parties from the accelerated disclosure requirements but requires candidates to report daily in the final 10 days of the campaign. 

Diaz de la Portilla called that suggestion “totally nuts.”