TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature reversed one of the most powerful vetoes of former Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday, passing into law a bill that allows legislative leaders to raise unlimited special interest money and funnel it to the campaigns of their hand-picked candidates.
The so-called leadership funds were originally outlawed 22 years ago when Democrats controlled the Legislature and attempted to remove the perception that they were influenced by pay-to-play politics.
By reviving the practice with broader disclosure requirements, Republicans vowed to usher in a new era of fundraising transparency by making public the previously secret campaign ledgers.
"This will create a new level of transparency of the political process that has never been seen before," said Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami. "This is more honest than you've ever seen before."
The House vote, 81-39, was along party lines, with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposed. The Senate voted 30-9 with two Republicans — Sens. Paula Dockery and Mike Fasano — voting against. Four Democrats, Sens. Jeremy Ring, Gwen Margolis, Bill Montford and Gary Siplin, voted in favor.
The bill emerged last year in the wake of charges that former Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer used party funds to pay for lavish spending and on a consulting contract that benefited him and the party's former executive director. Crist, who chose Greer to run the party, vetoed the bill, saying that in light of the scandals it put a "stamp of approval on those kinds of funds."
The new law takes immediate effect. It does not require Gov. Rick Scott's signature because the legislation originally passed last year under Crist, who had vetoed it.
Under the new law, the House speaker, the Senate president, and the heads of each of the minority parties could set up political committees, called affiliated party committees, and direct large amounts of cash to any candidate they chose.
The committees could contribute up to $50,000 to a legislative candidate and $250,000 to a statewide candidate — an expansion of the $50,000 limits that now apply to the party. The limits, however, don't apply to polling, staff salaries consultants and campaign ads.
The measure gives legislative leaders the same power as parties when raising and directing campaign funds, strengthening their clout, weakening the power of the political parties and allowing them to work outside the influence of the governor.
Scott, who campaigned as a Tallahassee outsider, said this week he is not threatened by the new law.
But Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith, a former state senator, said the funds will increase the leverage of special interests over lawmakers.
"It lends itself to increasing the influence of money directly onto legislative policy," he said.
He acknowledges that legislative leaders don't have to use the political accounts and will urge his members not to use them because they could be used by Republicans to pressure donors who give to the minority party.
Political fundraisers say the measure will provide a more open way of doing business, removing the guesswork as to who gives what to whom. But many say it simply legitimizes what is already done with a wink and a nod.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said that when leadership funds were outlawed in 1989 the goal was to reduce the influence of money in the system. But, as a longtime political operative, he believes that goal has failed as "money has become a much more dominating factor in campaigns."
But Sen. Nan Rich, the Senate Democratic leader from Weston, called the transparency a smoke screen to concentrate power into the hands of fewer legislators.
"This will stack the deck even more" and increase the ability of a handful of legislative leaders to " to hold power over their members," she said.
Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, said the measure "isn't about transparency. … This is about winning elections."
The measure imposes looser disclosure requirements on leadership funds than those that currently apply to legislators who establish their own political committees. By law, lawmakers are expected to report their contributions to those accounts within five days of receiving them.
Sen. John Thrasher, who as then-Republican Party chairman helped shepherd the bill through last year, acknowledged that the current reporting deadlines could be revised to give the public quicker access to the contributions. For example, legislators, who now may collect funds until the last day before session, are not required to disclose the information until more than halfway through the session in mid April.
"We ought not have to wait on those, and I agree we have to take a look at those," Thrasher said.
House Democrats attempted to derail the vote by claiming the Legislature didn't have the authority to bring up the measure since they have already passed the allotted time in the November special session. Nearly one-third of each chamber never heard the testimony on the original bill.