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Bills race through Legislature to revive once-outlawed 'leadership funds'

TALLAHASSEE — Legislative leaders are swiftly carrying out one of their priorities by bringing back once-reviled "leadership funds," unlimited soft-money accounts under direct control of a few influential lawmakers.

Reform-minded legislators outlawed the funds in 1989 amid a growing perception of "pay to play" politics. Special interests donated vast sums to powerful lawmakers (Democrats at that time) right before or during the legislative session, and lawmakers unopposed at election time would funnel their unspent campaign money into a leadership fund, only to be handed choice committee chairmanships.

In reality, the leadership funds never really disappeared. They functioned underground as part of the two political parties' vast fundraising apparatus, with big-money donors being asked to write checks to "House Victory" or "Senate Victory" funds. But the cash was homogenized into the parties' bottom lines.

Now, Republican lawmakers are packaging the re-creation of the funds as an act of "transparency" intended to reinforce the "who gave it, who got it" principle of Florida's campaign finance laws. A secondary motive for the funds' resurgence was revelations of lavish spending by Republican Party ex-chairman Jim Greer.

"The public will be well served if we bring back transparency to the process," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. "Under the current system, there's no way to see how much money they have raised or see from which interests they have raised that money."

SB 880 cruised through the committee on an 8-3 party-line vote Tuesday. With the outcome preordained, Democrats did not bother even debating against the bill.

Democrats called the "transparency" argument a cynical ploy by Republicans that will actually result in less transparency than currently exists. The leadership funds, which would called Affiliated Party Committees or APCs, would report donations and expenditures quarterly, the same as political parties, and would not required to have Web sites and report transactions within 10 days, as other lawmaker-controlled committees must.

The four lawmakers who will control the funds are the incoming Senate president and House speaker and the Democratic or minority leaders of the two chambers.

Voting against the bill were Democratic Sens. Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg, Arthenia Joyner of Tampa and Nan Rich of Weston, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, who said: "This bill opens the floodgates to special interest money and the influence it buys."

The House version of the bill, HB 1207 by Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, will be considered today by the Economic Development and Community Affairs Policy Council.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Bills race through Legislature to revive once-outlawed 'leadership funds' 03/09/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2010 8:52pm]
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