After a campaign fueled by massive outside spending and an election debacle that had voters standing in line for hours on end, incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford told reporters Tuesday that it’s time for the state to overhaul its campaign finance laws and consider voting changes, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.
In some of his most expansive remarks on his priorities since last week’s elections, Weatherford said the state should look at doing away with the committees lawmakers use to raise and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars outside of their official campaign coffers. But that should be combined with an increase in the $1,000 limit — $500 each for primary and general elections — on individual contributions to any campaign.
“That is an old, archaic law that should be addressed,” said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, of the contribution limt. “And by doing that, it will alleviate and emasculate these third-party groups that have been so prevalent in Florida for years and years.”
Weatherford was caught up in a controversy in the closing days of the campaign when fundraising groups tied to him gave to an outside organization that produced a mail piece attempting to link Democratic candidate Kathy Castor Dentel to Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach convicted of sexual abuse.
Weatherford took to Twitter to call the piece “completely inappropriate,” and Dentel beat Republican incumbent Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood shortly after the ad hit mailboxes.
Weatherford said Tuesday that lawmakers should get rid of the “committees of continuous existence” that they often use to raise large sums from special interests.
“I don’t think they need to exist,” he said. “I don’t think they help the process. I think we’ve all seen examples where things have happened that people had not envisioned so to me that is one area for sure that needs to be addressed.”
In that vein, he said, increasing the contribution limits would allow for greater transparency in who is bankrolling campaigns.
“We all know people are spending a lot of money on campaigns,” Weatherford said. “Unfortunately, none of it’s going through the actual campaign.”
Ben Wilcox, research director for ethics watchdog Integrity Florida, said the idea was worth considering.
“I definitely think the $500 limit is kind of meaningless with all the other options people have” to contribute, Wilcox said.
“The money’s there,” Wilcox said. “It’s going to find a way in.”
Florida’s limit is not the lowest in the nation, but is below the national mean of $2,000 per legislative candidate per cycle, and $5,000 for gubernatorial candidates.
Most of the larger states allow much larger contributions than Florida. Texas has no limit, according to research last year by the National Conference of State Legislatures. California allows candidates for governor to collect up to $52,000 per election cycle from each contributor, while legislative candidates are limited to between $7,800 and $13,000.
Candidates for governor in New York can collect up to $60,800 per person in an election cycle, though legislative candidates are held to between $8,200 and $16,800.
Weatherford said lawmakers should also look into the state’s elections process after some residents waited six hours or longer to vote and the counting wasn’t done in some races until Saturday. Florida was the last state to declare a winner in the presidential race, by which point President Barack Obama was already celebrating his re-election.
That could include a look at the shortened early-voting period that lawmakers approved in 2011, Weatherford said, though he didn’t make any commitments.
“Certainly, if it contributed to any challenges in the elections process, we should admit that,” he said.
A coalition of voting-rights groups called Tuesday for the state to convene an independent task force to look into the elections process. Weatherford said he welcomed anyone who wanted to contribute to the conversation, but suggested the new Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections would likely steer the House’s approach.
“Obviously, the laws that are currently on the books may not have served the state well, may not have served the process well,” he said. “So we have to go back, study it, get the facts, listen to the people of Florida and make a decision.”