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Legislators send campaign finance and ethics bills to governor

Shamed by a series of ethics and campaign finance abuses, Florida lawmakers sent to the governor on Wednesday a bill that eliminates political slush funds and imposes new ethics rules for elected officials across the state.

The bills, which were swiftly moved through both the House and Senate after leaders reached an agreement behind closed doors earlier in the week, now puts the pressure on Gov. Rick Scott to sign or veto the bill before session ends May 3.

The governor has been reluctant to embrace increases in campaign contribution limits while his session priorities remain in peril. Legislators have rejected his call for across-the-board teacher pay raises in the $74 billion state budget and his proposal to increase tax breaks for manufacturers is also stalled.

The campaign finance bill, HB 569, raises campaign contribution limits from the $500 now allowed in current law to $3,000 for statewide candidates and $1,000 for everyone else, thereby giving the governor and any potential opponent an easier way to raise campaign cash. The House voted for the measure 79-34 and the Senate voted for it 37-0.

The ethics bill, SB 2, imposes new rules on conflicts of interest, bans legislators from leaving office and going to work as Tallahassee lobbyists, loosens rules on financial disclosure deadlines, and opens the door to legislators who want to shield their assets in a blind trust. The House approved the measure 117-0 and the Senate approved it 37-0.

“I believe this bill will raise the ethical standard for all elected officials in the state of Florida,’’ said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

The chambers immediately delivered the bills to the governor’s desk, giving him seven days to accept or veto them. Scott wouldn’t commit to a veto on the campaign finance bill although he has repeatedly raised objections to the increased amounts.

“No one has shown me a rationale for raising these limits, so I don’t know why we would do it,’’ Scott told reporters on Wednesday. "On the ethics bill, I’m reviewing that."

The governor, a former health care executive and business investor, was a political newcomer in 2010 when he emerged as the frontrunner in the Republican primary and went on to spend $73 million of his personal fortune on his campaign.

The ethics and campaign finance bills were top priorities of Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who have watched as the former House speaker and Senate president were hired to lobby on behalf of companies they regulated as recently as last year. They were forced to defend legislators who used their political committees as slush funds, known as Committees of Continuing Existence or CCEs, for entertainment and travel. And they were chastised by the Florida Ethics Commission for rejecting their appeals to strengthen their ability to collect as much as $1 million in unpaid fines by scofflaw public officials.

Gaetz hailed the ethics bill as his “proudest moment as a senator” and said he expects the governor to sign it and not link it to other issues.

"The need to raise the standard of public conduct in this state stands on its own as a moral imperative,’’ he said.

The package of reforms eliminates the Committees of Continuing Existence and creates powerful new political committees that can accept unlimited amounts of campaign contributions.

It accelerates reporting requirements for campaign contributions 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 but will increase reporting for legislators to every two weeks after they qualify for office.

The measure, however, creates several new loopholes and preserves others, that have the effect of allowing political parties to shield large campaign donors and protect candidates from accusations that they are withholding personal financial data.

Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, tried and failed to amend the bill to limit donations from super-PACs and political parties to $25,000.

But Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee 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.’’

"You’re not going to be able to take money out of politics," Latvala said. 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,’’ he said, noting that the daily reporting leading up to an election are “when all the monkey shines go on."

The provisions also leave out recommendations made by the 2011 statewide grand jury, which recommended the state make it a felony if an officeholder’s unethical conduct is motivated by money and raise the maximum fine for an ethics violation from $10,000 to $100,000.

Instead, lawmakers loosened requirements frequently draw fines – the failure to properly disclose their financial interests – and gave lawmaker a 30-day “re-do” to fix mistakes on financial disclosure forms.

The House rejected a series of amendments by Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, that would end the 30-day loophole and tighten other rules.

Early in the session, Scott’s general counsel Pete Antonacci said the governor was supportive of the Senate’s ethics proposal and Scott has not threatened to veto that bill.

Common Cause Florida, a non-profit watchdog group, slammed the campaign finance bill and said any idea that it would improve behavior was “delusional.”

"The notion that lawmakers are seriously considering campaign finance reform is a farce,’’ said Brad Ashwell, of Common Cause Florida in a statement. "The bottom line is that it will do very little to improve the campaign finance process and likely will do some harm.”

He said the higher campaign limits, unlimited amount of money sent to political parties and super PACs will invite more money into the political system and serve as an incumbency protection act.

League of Women Voters president Deirdre Macnab echoed those concerns but commended the ethics proposals as “the most significant effort at ethics reform in 37 years in Florida.”

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

“This is not a perfect bill,’’ Gaetz said of the ethics bill. "The only perfect bills are the ones Moses brought down from the mountain.”

As the debate began, Weatherford summed the compromise up in a Tweet: “Today is meet me halfway day,” he said.

Among the provisions of HB 569, campaign finance:

* Requires legislators to close current CCEs but allows the money to be transferred to other candidates, political committees and parties.

* Raises campaign finance limits for statewide candidates to $3,000 for statewide candidates 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 communications 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.

Among the provisions of SB2, ethics:

* Imposes a two-year ban on legislators from becoming executive branch lobbyists

* Allows the Ethics Commission to initiate investigations

* Allows elected officials to hold their assets in a blind trust but does not prohibit the trust from investing in companies the officials regulate

* Allows legislators to accept honorarium under the state’s gift ban

* Loosens limits on dual employment that existed in previous versions of the bill -- exempting legislators if several criteria are all met – such as having the job publicly advertised and being qualified for the job.

* Increases the time violators can be held accountable for their fines from four to 20 years.