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Re-elected without opposition, some state lawmakers have campaign war chests to spend

TALLAHASSEE — Re-elected without opposition this summer, Rep. Dana Young had the strange but fortunate problem of having $200,000 in her campaign bank account and nothing to spend it on.

By law, Young couldn't keep the money for herself or hold onto it for her next campaign.

So instead she did the next best thing — cutting two checks to the Republican Party of Florida totaling about $150,000.

Young, a Tampa Republican, is one of about 50 lawmakers who — with no rival to bury in signs or television ads — poured their leftover political donations this year into the coffers of political parties and committees affiliated with the state's most powerful lawmakers. The GOP-led Legislature in 2011 lifted a $10,000 cap on political contributions for excess campaign money, making the transactions possible.

Under state law, candidates can steer that money to political parties, to charity or return it to their donors. They also can steer money to their state office accounts, or if they're feeling generous, donate the money to the state treasury.

In years past, lawmakers used nearly all of the money — which comes from lobbyists and private donors — to contribute to their favorite charities.

But this year the Republican Party of Florida banked nearly $1 million in donations from unopposed candidates. Few Democrats ran unopposed, and the few who did donated little to their party.

"I am conservative, and I think it's important to have conservatives at the state level in office," said Young, who also donated $20,000 to charities and set aside $10,000 for state office expenses

The shift to pouring hefty checks into party political funds comes as incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, discuss the need for stricter campaign finance rules.

Critics say rules for leftover campaign money is one area where the rules need tightening, but Weatherford, who gave $100,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, says that's not the case.

The parties operate with good transparency, he said. "This is a way to help the cause," he added.

But Ben Wilcox of Integrity Florida, a group advocating for tougher ethics laws, said big transfers of money result in a perception — if not a reality — that lawmakers use contributions to snag committee chairmanships or positions of power.

Young was named House deputy majority leader and majority whip on Wednesday.

Funneling money to the state parties can also serve as a way around state laws, which say a candidate cannot roll over unused contributions to their next election, Wilcox said.

"It's entirely conceivable that party donations are earmarked for the next election," Wilcox said. "(Lawmakers) are making use of a loophole they created."

Besides his contribution to the state party, Weatherford peeled off about $50,000 to charities such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Florida and Pasco County Take Stock in Children, where he serves as a mentor for under-privileged kids.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, wrote a $40,000 check to the Republican Party of Florida and another $2,000 to the Republican Party of Miami-Dade.

Flores set aside nearly $20,000 to supplement the $9,400 per year the state pays for office supplies. She also gave $1,000 to Florida Right to Life and $30,000 to various other charities.

Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, who gave $50,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, also gave $1,500 to the Down Syndrome Association because the child of his former aide has Down syndrome, he said.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who gave $30,000 to the state and local Republican parties, said she fell in love with the developmentally delayed adults who put on a yearly show at the Venice Theatre. She gave $5,000 to help the group build a new facility.

Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, donated $17,000 to the state GOP, but he also gave roughly $40,000 to various South Florida charities. Among his contributions was a $1,500 donation to Safe Haven for Newborns, which he says he helped start.

"I believe in helping," he said. "The party will get money elsewhere."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at 850-323-0353 or bdavis@tampabay.com.

Re-elected without opposition, some state lawmakers have campaign war chests to spend 11/15/12 [Last modified: Thursday, November 15, 2012 11:04pm]
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