Legislators finish rewrite of ethics, campaign bills

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.

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 accelerates reporting requirements by mandating that statewide candidates and their political committees must report campaign contributions 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. It raises the maximum fine for an ethics violation from $10,000 to $100,000.

Instead, lawmakers actually loosened some of the provisions that frequently draw fines — the failure to properly disclose their financial interests — and gave lawmakers 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.

Common Cause Florida, a nonprofit watchdog group, slammed the campaign finance bill.

“The notion that lawmakers are seriously considering campaign finance reform is a farce,’’ said Common Cause’s Brad Ashwell 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 simply protect incumbents.

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.”

Legislators, who must abide by the new rules, applauded 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 wrote.

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