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Democrats lose enthusiasm for Weatherford's campaign finance overhaul

A day before they vote on overhauling the Florida’s campaign finance laws, deep divisions emerged between Republicans and Democrats on the House Floor.

Along mostly party lines, the House on Thursday rejected efforts by Democrats to limit campaign contributions to $500, prohibit the governor from raising campaign cash during the legislative session, and prevent candidates from hoarding up to $50,000 in campaign cash to use in their next political races.

“I was disappointed we didn’t get support,” said Rep. Allan Williams, D-Tallahassee. “They weren’t partisan amendments. They were good government amendments.”

On Friday, representatives will vote on HB 569, which, while touted by Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford as a bipartisan approach to campaign finance reform, has attracted growing opposition among Democrats.

It increases the current $500 campaign contribution limit. For statewide offices, such as governor or Commissioner of Agriculture, candidates would be allowed to collect up to $5,000 per individual or company. For legislative offices or multi-county offices like circuit judge, contributions could be increased to $3,000.

Democrats wondered how that would make elections more accessible, but the bill’s sponsor, equated campaign cash with constitutional rights.

“Contributions are akin to free speech,” said Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, who was tapped by Weatherford to champion the bill. “If you ask for my comfort level, I wouldn’t have any limits.”

Under questioning that lasted more than an hour by Democrats, Schenck could be curt.

Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, in asking whether rolling over $50,000 to a future campaign gave incumbents an advantage, offered up a horse race analogy. When he asked if a horse race would be fair if one horse had a headstart of 50,000 paces, Schenck replied that his bill makes no mention of horses.

With little discussion, Republicans rejected an amendment by Williams that would prohibit the governor from raising campaign cash during the legislative session. The prohibition was a good one, Williams said, because it would put the governor on equal footing with lawmakers, who don’t raise money during session.

“When our governor makes a comment about one of our bills, it can kill it or help it along the process,” Williams saidl. “I’m not saying they’ve done this to help them fundraise, but I want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

The bill as it reads now does eliminate political fundraising committees called “Committees of Continuous Existence,” or CCEs. It’s geared for greater transparency that will only make it easier for the public to follow the money during campaigns, Weatherford said.

“We can all pat each other on the back and say $500 contributions limits are somehow keeping the money out of politics,” Weatherford told reporters after the vote on Thursday. “Meanwhile all the money is going to third-party groups.”

By increasing the cap on campaigns, Weatherford said, more money will go directly to campaigns which will hopefully make campaigns more responsible because it’s easier to track.

While Democrats like Williams say they aren’t sure they’ll support HB 569 anymore, it’s also a bit different from the Senate bill.

The Senate bill, SB 1382, abolishes CCEs and raises the contribution limit for statewide candidates from $500 to $3,000.

But it’s early.

“There is no such thing as a perfect bill, but we feel it’s a good start,” Weatherford said.