TALLAHASSEE -- Shamed by a series of ethics and campaign finance abuses, Florida lawmakers sent to the governor on Wednesday legislation that eliminates political slush funds and imposes new ethics rules for elected officials across the state.
The bills moved swiftly through the House and Senate after leaders reached an agreement behind closed doors earlier in the week. Now there’s pressure on Gov. Rick Scott to sign or veto them before the session ends May 3.
The governor has been reluctant to embrace increases in campaign contribution limits when 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 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.
It also eliminates the controversial Committees of Continuing Existence, known as CCEs, and creates powerful new political committees that can accept unlimited amounts of campaign contributions.
The House voted for the measure, 79-34; the Senate vote was unanimous, 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 of 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 healthcare executive and business investor, was a political newcomer in 2010 when he emerged as the front-runner 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 CCEs as slush funds to pay 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.
CCEs could collect unlimited campaign contributions, but were banned from spending the money directly on campaigns. The new measure would continue to allow unlimited contributions to the new PACs, but the money can be spent directly on campaigns within certain limits.