July 15, 2013

Blue Cross is top donor in Florida politics but its investment has produced mixed results

Health insurance giant Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida gave more money to Florida campaigns than any other single entity in the 2012 election cycle — $4.8 million — and the company is already the largest contributor in the current cycle, a Herald/Times analysis has found.

Company officials say the contributions, which include $867,000 sent to Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature since January, are an investment in like-minded candidates as Blue Cross works towards implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

But when it comes to the company’s top priority — the expansion of Medicaid to cover one million more uninsured Floridians — the health care giant’s out-sized investment has fallen flat.

Legislators walked away from extending Medicaid coverage to Florida residents at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty level after House leaders fiercely resisted the option. Blue Cross and Blue Shield, doing business as Florida Blue, contracts with the state to run a Medicaid managed care program, which was expected to get $50 billion over 10 years through Medicaid expansion.

“With regard to Medicaid, we do have a difference of opinion with a lot of the folks we have supported in the past,’’ said Jason Altmire, vice president of public policy government and community affairs for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, and a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. He said the company hopes to come back next session and renew the pitch for Medicaid expansion.

But Blue Cross and Blue Shield is not the only company to invest heavily in the political process, only to have its top legislative priority thwarted in the past year, according to the Herald/Times analysis.

Hospitals, nursing homes, and the ill-fated Internet cafe industry, all made heavy investments in the governor and legislators this year but went home empty.

Meanwhile, other large donors, such as U.S. Sugar, the Florida Optometry Association and the Florida Medical Association saw their political investments pay off as lawmakers passed long-sought legislation to make it easier for them to do business in Florida. More here. Here's the top 10 lists for the first two quarters of this cycle and the 2012 cycle:

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June 12, 2013

Glitch in new law to abolish CCEs sets up a summer dead zone for fundraisers

Florida’s attempt to outlaw political slush funds has created a fundraising snafu that could inadvertently put political committees out of business for three months this summer – and potentially complicate fundraising for Miami’s mayoral race.

The new law, which took effect May 1 (HB 569), prohibits Committees of Continuous Existence from accepting contributions after July 31, allows unlimited amounts of money in the defunct CCE to be transferred to a political committee, but it doesn’t allow political committees to accept contributions of more than $500 from any contributor until Nov. 1.

It’s the law of unintended consequences and it is giving political activists heartburn.

“Most of what happens between Aug. 1 and November is going to be dead time,’’ said John French, a Tallahassee lawyer and expert on elections law. “There’s a very Zen-like nature to this bill. It’s really unfortunate.”

But what may be dead time for most elected officials is heavy duty campaign season for the Nov. 5 election for the City of Miami mayor and commission seats.

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April 09, 2013

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.

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March 11, 2013

As debate lingers on CCEs, Cannon keeps his alive; newcomers open new ones

Former Speaker Dean Cannon is among the former legislators whose use of his political committee is raising the hackles of both his former colleagues and lobbyists.

Cannon, who left politics after being term limited out of office in November, has opened a lobbying firm in Tallahassee to lobby the executive branch but has never shut down his CCE that raised $1.1 million while Cannon was in office and spent $830,000. 

The CCE, Florida Freedom Council, spent $8,068 on personal expenses in 2012. The expenses included $2,678 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa and $2,675 on travel from GK Aviation, both in September; $485 at Shula’s 347 in Tallahassee on Nov. 12 and $2,230 on Crown Awards on Nov. 19.

In the final days of the 2012 election cycle, Cannon’s CCE gave $25,000 to the CCE of Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Ormond Beach, $25,000 to the Florida Enterprise Fund, a federally-regulated electioneering and communications organization, and $50,000 to the Republican Party of Florida.

Cannon said he is not the only person authorized to raise and spend money on the account but has asked the chairman, Scott Thomas, to shut it down.

“I have been supportive of that CCE but I do not have now, or ever had, complete control of it,’’ he said Monday. “I have asked the chairman to disperse the remaining funds to the Republican Party of Florida.” 

While Cannon hasn't closed his, the talk of abolishing CCEs hasn't stopped a few from getting into the game.

In the last two months, since legislators have begun the discussion of closing CCEs, three legislators have started new ones while dozens of others have kept theirs active. The newcomers to the table are Reps. Katie Edwards, D-Sunrise, and Sens. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach and Kelli Stargel, R- Lakeland. Reps. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, are two legislators who have closed their CCEs in 2013. 

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. 

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March 07, 2013

Weatherford: Embrace most of Senate ethics bill and lower campaign caps

House Speaker Will Weatherford said Thursday the House Ethics and Elections Committee next week will take up a bill that embraces most of the Senate's ethics bill and another that will "dramatically" reduce the the $10,000 cap on campaign contributions.

Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday he could not support the House cap on campaign contributions and Weatherford said a new version, which is being drafted now, "will have that number come down dramatically."

In its place will be a tiered cap, Weatherford told the Herald/Times. A similar bill (SB 1382) has been proposed by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, that would raise contributions from $500 to $3,000 for statewide offices such as governor, Cabinet and Supreme Court merit retention races but leave the cap at $500 for legislative and countywide races. The Senate bill is scheduled for a hearing on Monday.

But, Weatherford said, the House proposed caps will be higher. Latvala's proposed levels "are better but still too low,'' he said. "If we have the $500 cap, we can all pat ourselves on the back and say that's great we're having cap but there's no cap on (Scott's political committee) 'Let's Get to Work,''' or on other electioneering and communications organizations that are regulated under federal law.

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March 06, 2013

Gov. Rick Scott tells House he's not a fan of exploding campaign finance cap

In another sign that Florida Gov. Rick Scott is moving to the populist middle, the govenor's aides told Florida House leaders Wednesday that he cannot support their plan to raise campaign contribution caps from $500 to $10,000 in exchange for more rigorous disclosure.

"What we’ve told the House is that when they do that they reduce the importance of the individual who can only write a $500 check so I think they ought to really look at that a lot more closely,'' Scott said Wednesday in an interview with the Herald/Times. "I want to see what they come back with but we’ve got to try to keep as many people involved in the process as we can.''

Scott, who spent more than $73 million of his own money to get elected, has collected dozens of five and six digit contributions through his political committee, Let's Get to Work. Three of the contributions in the last year were for $250,000 -- from Florida Power & Light, resort casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and AutoNation Founder Wayne Huizenga.  

The House is moving a top priority bill of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, that would eliminate the political slush funds known as Committees of Continuous Existence, raise the campaign finance cap to $10,000 from the current $500 per campaign, and require accelerated disclosure of all campaign finance contributions.

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January 16, 2013

Florida's flawed campaign finance laws come under scrutiny in House committee

Florida’s campaign finance system came under scrutiny Wednesday as the House Committee on Ethics and Elections began its review of the process that has allowed unchecked political committees to operate as candidate slush funds.

Gary Holland of the Division of Elections described the complex framework of rules and regulations that apply to candidates and political committees in Florida that has been morphed and modified as legislators respond to state and national court rulings.

The Committees of Continuing Existence, which were originally designed to be political committees for dues-gathering organizations, have become fundraising machines with the power to raise unlimited contributions and “basically give it to anybody,” Holland said.

Money can be spent on candidate travel, consultants, hotels and meals, gifts and even personal expenses, as long as they are deemed campaign related. It is a system that House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, believes if ripe for reform. He has called for the elimination of CCEs but the House has yet to draft legislation.

Integrity Florida, the independent ethics watchdog group, offered five fixes to the current system, including calling for the elimination of the $500 contribution limits to candidate campaigns in exchange for 24-hour disclosure.

“The reality is that money in politics today is dominated by unlimited donations with inadequate disclosure,’’ Krassner told the House committee. “Our goal should be to transition to a political financing system that maximizes transparency and accountability with candidates themselves becoming directly responsible for their own campaign activities.

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Are you ready for unlimited campaign donations to political committees?

Florida’s campaign finance system is so riddled with holes that a state ethics watchdog group will urge lawmakers Wednesday to open the spigot and let an unlimited amount of campaign cash gush into campaign coffers.

Integrity Florida, a non-profit, independent ethics advocacy organization, will tell the Houses Ethics and Elections Committee that the state should allow no-limits campaign finance in exchange for public disclosure of all donors.

Disclosure would be made within 24 hours of every check deposited to any state or local campaign account and every expenditure paid. The group also wants the elimination of powerful political slush funds that whitewash funds and shield donors, known as Committees of Continuous Existence.

“There is no evidence that caps on contributions are effective,’’ said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida. “The money is going to find its way into the system. It is broken in every possible way.”

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has made eliminating CCEs a political priority, told the Herald/Times that he is “open to considering” the removal of contribution limits.

“We already have a system that allows for unlimited money,’’ he said. Story here. 

January 12, 2013

Three out of four $$ this election cycle went to no-limits committee accounts

Florida’s sputtering economy did not stop interest groups and donors from spending $306 million this election cycle on state political campaigns, according to final election year tallies released Friday.

The number is lower than the $550 million reported in the 2010 election cycle and does not include the massive amount of federal cash spent in the presidential race. But it points to a new trend: more dollars are going to campaign committees rather than individual candidates.

Three out of every four dollars were unlimited checks to political committees, while the rest went into the campaign accounts of individuals, which are capped at $500 a check.

The shift is a sign that Florida’s $500 limit is outdated and dysfunctional — and ripe for reform, said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, which did the analysis of the campaign finance data released by the Florida Division of Elections.

“Candidate accounts have become nearly irrelevant,’’ said Krassner. The current system allows corporations to write unlimited checks to political committees with loose affiliations to candidates but require them to give no more than $1000 to individual candidates for both the primary and general election. The result is, he said, “the public cannot easy follow the money.’’

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has called for an overhaul of the state’s campaign finance reforms said Friday the numbers prove his point that the political committees – known as Committees of Continuous Existence, or CCEs – have gotten out of hand. Story here.

Top accounts:

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