TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist angered Republican legislative leaders Tuesday by vetoing a bill that would have resurrected their access to potent partisan fundraising machines known as leadership funds.
The elections bill (HB 1207) was a priority of GOP lawmakers, who want to use the funds as vessels for special interest money to influence elections and help favored candidates.
Republicans such as Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, have said leadership funds would allow more "transparency'' because they would give citizens a clear view of legislative leaders' campaign finance activity, which is currently obscured because all party fundraising is mixed into one pot when the records are made public.
Leadership funds were banned 21 years ago when Democrats, in charge of the Legislature then, were embarrassed by a perception of pay-to-play politics.
Crist, a Republican, said leadership funds are a vestige of Florida's political past that should be forgotten. He also referred to recent scandals at the Republican Party of Florida.
"In this climate, I'm just concerned about sort of putting a stamp of approval if you will on those kinds of funds," Crist said. "I don't think it's the right thing to do nor the right time to do it."
Haridopolos couldn't be reached after the veto. The House sponsor, Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, said he was "deeply disappointed'' by Crist's veto. Senate Republican leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla of Miami condemned Crist's action.
"The governor is 100 percent wrong," he said in a statement. He pointed out that the bill also would have required more disclosure by shadowy election groups known as 527s, named after the section of the federal tax code.
Florida used to regulate 527s, which the state called electioneering communication organizations or ECOs. But a federal judge wiped out state regulations of the groups last year, saying the law was too vague. The electioneering groups can raise and spend unlimited sums with no state oversight or disclosure at the state level.
Lawmakers aren't likely to try to muster the two-thirds vote to override Crist's veto. They can take portions of the bill that Crist likes, such as ECO regulation, and write them into other bills.
Diaz de la Portilla said the vetoed bill would have required disclosure of the financial activity of leadership funds. The special funds, known as affiliated party committees, not only empowered legislative leaders but undercut the power of party bosses.
"As Gov. Crist knows all too well, unchecked power resting solely in a party chairman's office is no way to account for how political party dollars are spent," Diaz de la Portilla said in his statement, taking a swipe at former state Republican Party chairman Jim Greer, whom Crist chose to lead the party in 2006.
Greer's successor, Sen. John Thrasher, last week called for a state investigation into a consulting contract that benefited the former chairman. Greer's attorneys say Thrasher and other Republicans were ginning up fake charges against Greer to avoid paying out a severance contract they signed.
Crist on Friday called for a federal investigation into party finances under Greer. For more than a year, Crist had rebuffed calls for an investigation as some Republican activists groused about Greer's management and spending.
Crist has increasingly criticized his party in recent weeks as opponent Marco Rubio, a former House speaker from Miami, opened up a double-digit lead over him in the Republican race for U.S. Senate.
Democrats praised Crist's veto, saying it stopped a bad fundraising law from going into effect.
Though Crist distanced himself from GOP leaders, some Republicans said he was moving closer to grass roots voters.
Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican running for governor, said rank-and-file Republicans have grown disillusioned with party leaders. They're also angry at the way control of the GOP has been seized by a small cadre of Tallahassee insiders, she said, who engineered the removal of Greer and selected Thrasher of St. Augustine as his replacement.
"I think it was a very good move by the governor at a time when the party is under a microscope," Dockery said.
One Republican who voted for the bill, Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, said he had second thoughts about the legislation as news reports began to dribble out about party financial trouble.
"In this business, perception can be reality," Fasano said.
The leadership funds bill was born, in part, because of Thrasher's successful race for state Senate last fall. Haridopolos, slated to become Senate president in November, and other Senate Republicans wanted the party to support Thrasher, but they couldn't get Greer to lend party support.
Under state elections law, a party can raise unlimited sums and directly contribute $50,000 to a candidate's campaign. Others, such as an individual contributor or a lawmaker's personal political committee, can only contribute $500. Also, a political party can spend unlimited amounts on polling and ads that generally support a candidate.
Under the leadership funds bill, a legislative leader would have access to a party account with the same campaign-finance powers as the party itself. Leadership funds could be set up by only four lawmakers: the minority leader in each chamber and the House speaker and Senate president or their designees.
"There's got to be a better way to do this. These (leadership funds) did not go away 20 or 21 years ago because they were viewed as a wonderful thing," Crist said. "I think there is such a level of concern by the people right now about those kinds of funds, I just have a hard time putting my name on it."
Mark Herron, an election-law expert with the Florida Democratic Party, said the now-vetoed bill didn't change the amount of money that washed through the political system. It mainly broadened the fundraising power of legislative leaders.
"It added new captains at the helm'' Herron said.
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com