House moves ahead with plan to end slush funds, raise campaign contribution limits to $10,000

A House plan to eliminate controversial political slush funds and raise campaign contribution limits to $10,000 in Florida won approval on a bi-partisan vote Monday.

But the top priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford faces a fight. Senate critics and ethics watchdogs warn that the bill will create new loopholes, allowing political parties to control big checks with little accountability, concentrate power in the hands of incumbents, and make the system less democratic.

Those criticisms did not dissuade the House Ethics and Elections Subcommittee Monday, however, which passed HB 569 on a 10-2 vote. Democratic Reps. Katie Edwards of Plantation and Mike Clelland of Lake Mary joined Republicans who predicted the bill will result in "dramatic change." Clelland defeated Rep. Chris Dorworth, a Republican designated to become House speaker in 2014, after Dorworth’s used his political committee for personal expenses.

"The bill is simple. It takes Florida’s election process and makes it one of the most transparent in the nation and it does do by protecting everyone’s free speech,’’ said Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, the sponsor of the measure.

The bill eliminates the controversial Committees of Continuous Existence, the political committees that can collect unlimited funds but can’t spend on campaigns. They have become the method of choice for legislators to pay for meals, travel and entertainment to get around the legislature’s strict gift ban.

The House proposal also raises limits on campaign contributions to $10,000 from the current $500, a level Weatherford has called “archaic” since the 2010 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that campaign contributions were protected speech and could not be limited. The measure also allows the party to contribute as much as $10,000 to a candidate’s committee, up from the current $500, and allows candidates to keep as much as $100,000 in unspent money for the next campaign for the same office.

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

Schenck and other Republicans on the panel said the goal of the House bill is not to limit the flow of money into the political system but instead to establish new ground rules that will make it easier to track who gets contributions from whom.

"This will be a dramatic change,’’ said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. "Gone will be the days where people can hide behind a secretive third party group…This is a tremendous step forward in transparency and accountability to voters."

But two Democrats on the panel said the changes don’t go far enough, but commended Republicans for accepting some revisions.

The committee accepted an amendment by Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, that strikes a provision in the proposal that would have allowed one candidate to give as much as $10,000 to another candidate. But it rejected his attempts to strike the increase in the campaign finance cap and another that would have streamlined reporting requirements for large organizations, such as unions, whose members make frequent but small contributions.

Williams voted against the bill because, he said, “certain provisions of his bill, while maybe well intentioned, still favor incumbents, me included.’’

Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has said he won’t support the House bill and doubts claims that it can be considered real reform. He said the House bill will increase the arms race of campaign cash into the system, and won’t end the shell game because big donors who want to shield their intentions can write big checks to the party, which won’t face the same disclosure requirements as candidates and political committees.

"Every candidate can get up to $10,000 per contributor and give an unlimited amount to the party, and that leads to a whole new area for money,’’ he told the Herald/Times last month. Latvala said the Senate instead will try to rein in CCEs and increase campaign disclosure when it releases its campaign finance proposal early next month.

Weatherford has called CCEs a failed concept and accused Latvala of "political posturing."

Campaign watchdogs Common Cause of Florida and the League of Women Voters commended the House for banning CCEs, but urged lawmakers to lower the campaign cap. Integrity Florida, an ethics watchdog group which has called for 24-hour disclosure of all campaign contributions in exchange for unlimited contributions, supports the House bill.