TALLAHASSEE — Rick Scott, the multimillionaire Republican gubernatorial candidate, failed to persuade a federal judge Wednesday to stop the state from sending millions of dollars to his opponent's struggling campaign.
Scott claimed that the Florida public finance law violates his constitutional rights because it allows the state to cut a check to Attorney General Bill McCollum's campaign when Scott exceeds the state's $24.9 million spending cap.
But U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle concluded that there is a greater public interest in preventing corruption by preserving the state's public-finance system than in protecting Scott's First Amendment rights.
The decision, while subject to an immediate appeal by Scott, clears the way for McCollum to receive a dollar-for-dollar match for everything Scott spends over the limit. Scott said in court documents that he expects to exceed the limit by Sunday, and McCollum speculates that his adversary will spend millions more between now and the Aug. 24 primary.
McCollum's campaign manager, Matt Williams, hailed the decision, noting that his candidate has not only agreed to abide by campaign spending limits but is subject to the $500 limits for individual and corporate contributions. McCollum said in court documents that his campaign is down to $800,000.
Scott "can come in and write a check for millions of dollars and we're on the road raising money in $500 increments," Williams said.
Scott argued that Florida's 23-year-old law violates his right to free speech because it forces him to limit his campaign spending or face a trigger that sends state money to his opponent to be spent against him.
Hinkle, a Democrat and Bill Clinton appointee, agreed that the law "imposes a burden on Mr. Scott's speech." But he said the trigger for matching money was adopted by the Florida Legislature at the same time it enacted the $500 limit on individual campaign contributions.
The provisions of the 1991 law work in tandem to "combat corruption or the appearance of corruption'' in the campaign finance system, the judge said. By allowing a candidate to collect more money if his opponent refuses to agree to the campaign finance limits, the system offsets "the effects of the $500 cap," he said.
For that reason, the judge said, and the fact that "it's in the middle of the campaign'' and there is "a strong public interest in avoiding chaos in the runup to the election," he rejected Scott's call for an injunction against the state law.
Hinkle agreed that McCollum's receipt of the matching funds will force Scott to reduce his spending if he wants to limit the amount McCollum will get from the state, and it may force him to take indirect support through other outside campaign sources. But the judge disagreed with both Scott and McCollum that the potential for McCollum to receive matching funds influenced either man's spending until now.
"McCollum would have spent the same amount with or without the match … and Scott would have done just as he has done with or without the match," the judge said.
Under a separate provision, McCollum is expected to receive $2.5 million from the state next week because he has agreed to the campaign-finance limits, and Wednesday's ruling means he can expect to receive even more by mid August.
Scott's attorney, Enu Mainigi, said she and her client are disappointed in the ruling and "plan on pressing our case quickly'' with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.
Much of the discussion centered on whether Florida's law could endure a challenge to the so-called "trigger'' provision that allows someone running against a candidate who doesn't participate in the campaign finance system to draw more taxpayer money for every dollar the wealthy candidate spends.
A three-judge panel in Connecticut threw out a similar law there on Tuesday, basing its decision on a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that let congressional candidates raise more money when running against self-financed opponents.
The U.S. Supreme Court also decided last month to block Arizona's use of public matching funds for candidates outspent by privately funded rivals or targeted by spending from independent groups.
Hinkle said he expects the decision to be appealed, and added there is no guarantee his ruling will be upheld.
"I'm not at all sure whether the statute will be upheld, given the way the wind is blowing in campaign finance," he said. "Nobody can walk out of this room with an assurance this is how this election goes forward."
But following his ruling from the bench, Hinkle offered a 50-minute analysis on why he believes his ruling should be upheld: "If I thought this provision was unconstitutional, I would enjoin," he said.
Unlike the recent rulings throwing out campaign finance provisions in Connecticut and Arizona, Hinkle said, Florida's law is different. The provision —triggering the flow of matching funds to a candidate when an opponent exceeds the spending cap — was passed ''hand in hand'' with the $500 individual and corporate limit.
Mainigi argued that because of the rulings in other states, Florida law is likely to die if it ever gets to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Hinkle said the other laws that were struck down did not apply to public campaign finance statutes, but were designed to protect candidates who wanted matching money to face millionaire opponents. By contrast, he said, Florida's public financing law "serves a compelling anti-corruption function."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.