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House proposes closing slush funds, raising contribution limits

 

The House speaker’s campaign finance reform bill aims to eliminate controversial political committees and raise the cap on contributions.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Florida House leaders unveiled what they hope will be behavior-changing campaign finance reform Wednesday, phasing out candidate-controlled political committees and ushering in stricter reporting deadlines, more contribution accountability and campaign contribution caps of $10,000 per election.

“It’s a way to start the conversation,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has made reforming what he considers a “messed up” campaign finance system a top priority. “We are keeping the baby and throwing out the bath water.”

The most dramatic proposal of the 47-page bill is its goal of eliminating almost 700 Committees of Continuing Existence, political committees that can collect unlimited campaign checks but may not expressly advocate for candidates. The CCEs have been increasingly used as personal slush funds by candidates who can legally spend the unrestricted money on travel, entertainment and meals as well as steer money to other candidates and causes.

The bill would require all CCEs to be shut down by Nov. 1, giving time for organizers to allow them to become traditional political committees. Traditional political committees would remain in law to be used to advocate for a candidate or an issue and would continue to be allowed to accept unlimited contributions from donors.

The proposal also would increase Florida’s 20-year-old cap on campaign contributions from $500 to $10,000 per election, and from $1,000 to $20,000 per election cycle.

Ethics advocates such as Integrity Florida had urged lawmakers to consider eliminating all caps on campaign contributions in exchange for immediate, 24-hour disclosure. The House bill stops short of immediate disclosure but asks the Division of Elections to prepare a report by Dec. 1 that looks into the cost and possibility of moving to full disclosure for both state and local campaigns.

Under the bill, HB 569, candidates for state offices would be required to file weekly campaign finance reports after they qualify for office and provide 24-hour reporting during the last 10 days of the general election cycle.

The proposal also includes new limits on how candidates use their surplus funds after an election, allowing them to keep up to $100,000 for the next election in the same office or dispose of the money by returning it to donors or giving it to charitable causes.

The bill is expected to face resistance from legislators who want to retain the current CCE system and political consultants who have profited from it.

Senate leaders of both parties warned Wednesday that eliminating CCEs could concentrate power in the parties and weaken the ability of challengers to unseat incumbents. But those potential opponents made their remarks before they had seen the bill.

“I’d rather target the abuses, solve the abuses, than I would to take drastic action like that,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, at a meeting of journalists at The Associated Press’ legislative planning conference.

Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale said they would also prefer to crack down on the abuses. “There have been abuses with CCEs, I’m not going to say there haven’t been,” Smith said. “But when you go after one problem you create another problem.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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