House tees up campaign finance changes

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The House sponsor of a plan to revamp Florida’s campaign-finance laws said Wednesday it is not aimed at reducing the amount of money pouring into state politics but would shed more light on the labyrinth of contributions and spending, via Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

The House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee is expected to vote Monday on the plan (HB569), which Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has indicated will be a priority during the upcoming legislative session.

The measure would eliminate fund-raising vehicles known as “committees of continuous existence,” while dramatically increasing maximum individual contributions to candidates from the current $500 to $10,000. At the same time, it would require more-frequent disclosure of information about political contributions and campaign spending.

“This bill is not designed to influence the amount of money being spent on campaigns,” said House Rules & Calendar Chairman Rob Schenck, a Spring Hill Republican who is sponsoring the bill. “It is designed to influence our right as the public to see where the dollars are coming from and where they are going.”

Some members of the Ethics & Elections Subcommittee and a leader of Common Cause Florida, however, raised questions about the measure during a workshop Wednesday. That included questions about allowing candidates to accept $10,000 checks from contributors.

“Why $10,000?” asked Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. “Why not $2,500?”

Peter Butzin, chairman of Common Cause Florida, said his watchdog group supports the proposal to eliminate committees of continuous existence. But he said contribution limits make elections more competitive and that his group opposes the idea of increasing the maximum amounts to $10,000.

But Schenck said he thinks a $10,000 cap is reasonable and that political contributions are akin to free speech. He said better disclosure of contributions and spending are the key issue.

Campaign-finance changes could be a high-profile issue during the session that starts in March, though the Senate appears to have differences with at least parts of the House approach.

Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has signaled that he does not want to raise contribution limits to $10,000 or eliminate committees of continuous existence, commonly known as CCEs. He has discussed trying to rein in CCEs, pointing to lawmakers who have used the committees to pay for meals and other personal expenses.

“I raised $600,000 without breaking a sweat in my Senate race this year,” Latvala said last month, as he addressed the possibility of raising contribution limits. “What would I possibly need three or four or five times that much for a Senate race? I wouldn’t need it. I mean, why?”

Schenck described the $500 limit as “archaic” and said eliminating CCEs, which are overseen by lawmakers and numerous outside groups, would help improve transparency in the campaign-finance system. He said CCEs serve as a tool to transfer money to other types of political committees and candidates.

Another proposal for trying to increase transparency would require more-frequent filing of campaign-finance reports. State candidates, political committees and groups known as “electioneering communications organizations” would have to file monthly reports during much of the year and more-frequent reports when elections near. That would include filing every 24 hours during the final 10 days before general elections.

The bill also would allow candidates to carry over as much as $100,000 from one campaign to the next. That drew questions from Rep. Alan Williams, a Tallahassee Democrat who said the move could benefit incumbents over challengers.

But Schenck said he has had a series of tough election campaigns.

“I would never have $100,000 left over to begin with,” he said.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.